Opinion: Quick Takes

On “Fat-Finger Dialing”

North Carolina, the state that bore the brunt of the Big Tobacco lawsuit, will soon face another challenge that could cause it disproportionate harm.

Widely reported lawsuits against America’s largest fast food chains may be on hold, but the dastardly restaurants have helped spawn a surprise epidemic: “Fat-finger dialing.”

The federal government recently became aware of the problem, in which predatory telecommunications companies set up multiple phone numbers resembling popular services like 1-800-CALL-ATT. ASC Telecom Inc., a Sprint Corp. subsidiary, and One Call Communications Inc. benefit from dialers’ oversized digits when the victims press a wrong numbered button (called “miss-mashing” in the Tar Heel state), causing an accidental call to numbers like 1-800-CELL-ATT, or other mistaken variations. Unintentional calls go to the non-AT&T companies, who offer long distance service like the telecom giant, but charge much higher rates than AT&T without the dialers’ knowledge.

AT&T filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in New York requesting that the court force Sprint, ASC, and One Call to relinquish numbers similar to 1-800-CALL-ATT, and pay unspecified financial damages for business obtained under false pretenses.

“Consumers who inadvertently dial one of the defendants’ numbers have been deceived into using defendants’ services, causing AT&T to lose business which was intended for it,” the complaint says, according to a report in the Washington Times.

Like the tobacco case, this scam could harm residents of North Carolina more than those in most other states.

Why? Because we are among the states with the highest rates of obesity. We rank in the bottom quarter, meaning we have a plus-size percentage of plump pointers per capita. Only politicians can fix this inequity.

First, the state Department of Justice should address the problem with a public service advertising onslaught. Remember when Gov. Mike Easley was attorney general in the late 1990s? He spent thousands of dollars warning blacks about the dangers of predatory lending scams. The slick ads, prominently promoting Easley’s efforts in the fraud fight, ran in minority-targeted print and broadcast media throughout the state. The campaign was credited with helping him win black voter support in his successful run for governor.

A similar campaign by current Attorney General (and likely future gubernatorial candidate) Roy Cooper, cautioning potential victims about “fat-finger dialing,” is in order. But where should he direct the ads? No obesity-oriented publications or broadcasters exist in the state, to my knowledge.

Placing them at entrances to those fast food restaurants would be a good start. Glossy posters with Cooper’s warning about devious dial-up schemes would raise awareness in the corpulent community. All-you-can-eat buffet restaurants should be targeted too. The legislature should make these ads mandatory for all deep-fried focused, burger-centric, and barbecue establishments. Cooper could expect super-sized support for any of his future campaigns as a side benefit.

Cooper’s next action should be to initiate a class action lawsuit against Big Meat. Going after the restaurants was fine, but didn’t get to the root problem: Beef and pork peddlers. Cooper ought to get as many states as possible to join the litigation, as in the case against Big Tobacco.

Remember how important Easley was in the tobacco settlement, when he recognized how North Carolina would suffer greater harm than other states because of its dependence on the golden leaf? Cooper will need to follow his example, extracting as much money as possible from Big Meat, because North Carolina is the second-largest pork producing state in the country. We must protect our pig farmers.

On another front, the legislature should target telephone manufacturers, especially cell-phone makers, by demanding they produce larger-buttoned options for oversized fingers.

Failing that, Dept. of Health and Human Services secretary Carmen Hooker Odom must begin an education program for “fat-finger dialers.” While sufferers may not immediately find relief for their handicap in present circumstances, they can learn dialing alternatives and how to cope. Suggestions for possible DHHS classes:

• “Precise Pencil Pressing Techniques”
• “Anger Management: Slamming the Receiver on Unintended Operators”
• “Digit Depression: Overcoming Push-Deficit Syndrome”
• “Overcharged: Revenge on the Big Bad Telecoms”
• “History of Wrong Numbers”

However we proceed, the state is facing another crisis that it cannot ignore. Only intervention from our highest officials in government can protect “fat-finger dialers,” and make life fair for all North Carolinians.

Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal.