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Armenian Teens Chat up a Political Storm

An expensive new telephone chatline has left hundreds of Yerevan residents facing financial ruin.
By Anush Dashtents

Dozens of parents are suing a Greek-managed telephone introduction service which they say unfairly lured children into running up massive bills.

"My son started using the introduction service when I was at work," Ruzan Mailian, a Yerevan taxi service switchboard operator and single mother of two teenagers told IWPR.

She says she is taking the action as the bills, far beyond her means, were run up while she was on nightshift and this means that the operator Teleplus made a deal with her children - an offence under Armenian law.

The Telephone Introductions Club was launched in Yerevan in April with an aggressive advertising campaign. It matches up callers with both parties being billed around one US dollar a minute as they chat, a rate that was approved by Armenian government officials.

National Consumers' Association, NCA, chairperson Melita Hakobian says the service has received a number of complaints about the service and argues that the operator must be instructed to verify the caller's age.

"The sums are astronomical for Yerevan," said NCA lawyer Nune Ajemian. "Some of those who have agreed to pay have to sell their furniture and home appliances."

The average monthly wage in the Armenian capital is around 30 dollars. It was therefore a massive shock to say the least for Marine Stepanian to return home from two weeks in the hospital to find that her son had fled in shame after running up a 5,800 dollar bill.

Such massive bills are being blamed for one girl attempting to throw herself from a seventh floor balcony. She was saved only when her mother managed to stop her at the last minute.

Another family pin the blame for a heart attack suffered by their father on the sum run up by his teenage son.

Anna Hovanesian told IWPR that her brother Vahan Hovanesian, a research associate with a Yerevan research institute, had had the attack within hours of finding out about the sum involved.

"You can only imagine what state the family is in," says Anna. "His son says he is making plans to go rob someone to pay off his debt."

Those behind the lawsuit argue that it was unfair promotions that lured the children into running up the bills without the knowledge of their parents - violating advertising rules in Armenia.

Arman Saghatelian, vice president of the Public Relations Association, PRA, which has drafted a free specimen lawsuit claim form, says Teleplus manipulated inexperienced, gullible teenagers with imagery designed to pander to their baser instincts.

"The advertising was very alluring and it worked, but the nature of the services advertised was not clear," explained Saghatelian. "And it said nothing about age restrictions."

Teleplus however denies that legal action has a chance of success.

One executive, who did not want to give his name, told IWPR, "It's in no way the fault of Teleplus. We gave a very detailed account of our rates in the commercials. It's not our fault if the parents didn't know they could have special filters installed in their phones to prevent kids from calling toll services."

Such arguments are backed by Lusine Yeghiazarian, a lawyer with the Armenian Centre for National and International Studies who believes that parents have been fairly warned about phone filters in the press. "Ignorance is no grounds to disclaim liability."

Some of the plaintiffs are also targeting the Greek-owned Armenian telephone company Armentel which has disconnected those who did not pay Teleplus bills.

In Armentel's case the claim drafted by PRA states that it is illegal for the company - which has a monopoly on the state's communications - to disconnect a phone if the telephone bill has been paid.

"Introduction service bills are not phone bills," argues Saghatelian.

Armentel's public relations spokesperson Gohar Simonian rejects this saying that using such reasoning means it would not be possible to disconnect subscribers who failed to pay for dial-up Internet access.

One debtor who is not blaming the two companies is Ludmila Aghababian, who owes the service 1,000 dollars.

She holds the local authorities responsible, saying, "Teleplus is not to blame, it was simply making money. The Armenian government and telecommunications ministry … let this happen."

And indeed any court battle is likely to take on a wider political and nationalistic dimensions with Armentel, a subsidiary of Greece's OTE, having had a controversial monopoly on Armenia's telecommunications since 1998.

Two years ago the introduction of billing by the minute sparked public protests and complaints in parliament.

The company's relationship with the government has since grown increasingly strained and some observers speculate that authorities may use any such court action as a reason for stripping the company of its privileges.

The company has made some concessions reconnecting subscribers who owe Teleplus only small sums. But that is little comfort to parents now facing ruin because of their teen's chat habits.

Anush Dashtents is a reporter for Ditord magazine published by The Helsinki Committee of Armenia

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