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Smugglers send Net phone accounts to Panama

It's the newest thing in contraband--cheap Vonage accounts. What else can you do when your own country slaps a fee on VoIP calls?

Technology rebels in Latin America are finding a way around government crackdowns on Net telephony with a little help from friends and relatives from the north, says Jose Otero, a Latin American telephone consultant.

The United States doesn't regulate Net phone calls, but broadband customers in Panama pay a 12 percent tax on calls made using voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP. Further, the government fines Internet cafes between $10,000 and $50,000 for letting customers make Net phone calls, says the director of InfoAmericas.

The situation is just as grim, from a geek's perspective, in Mexico, where the government is considered virulently anti-VoIP, and in Colombia, which all but outlawed VoIP in the late 1990s.

"These governments are very protective of the incumbent phone companies," Otero says. "You don't know how good you have it in the United States."

But where there's an American relative, there's a way, Otero says. Americans are signing up their Latin American relatives for accounts from Vonage and others VoIP providers, then shipping the necessary hardware and passwords south of the border.

That sort of subterfuge isn't possible with traditional phone service. But VoIP uses the Internet, rather than a traditional phone network. Not only are rates up to 80 percent cheaper, because the service avoids the heavily taxed phone networks, but the only infrastructure required for an account is a broadband connection.

A Vonage representative said the company has rules in place that could limit just such scenarios. For instance, customer service isn't available to Vonage customers that move outside North America and keep their original Vonage account, the representative said.

But the company isn't putting any restrictions on the number of accounts someone can set up. It wouldn't make much business sense, the company said.

"There are no limits on how much toothpaste you can buy, right?" the representative said.