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Porn site owners charged with billing for free services

The Federal Trade Commission and New York attorney general file a lawsuit against Playgirl.com and dozens of other adult content Web sites for allegedly billing consumers for services that were offered as free.

The Federal Trade Commission and New York attorney general filed a lawsuit today against Playgirl.com, Highsociety.com and dozens of other adult content Web sites for allegedly billing consumers for services that were offered as free.

Lawyers said consumers thought they were using the free portion of the Web sites but were charged for the services on their credit cards. Consumers who never used the sites also were allegedly charged.

According to the legal brief, the Web site operators collected $188 million from 1997 to 1999, some of which may have been obtained fraudulently. The credit card billings allegedly generated "tens of thousands" of complaints.

"VisaUSA tells us this is one of the top two or three complaints that they've ever had, and that they have thrown them out of the VisaUSA system," said Steve Baker, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Midwest region. "This is probably the biggest Internet scam I've ever seen."

Filing today in Manhattan's U.S. District Court, attorneys for the plaintiffs asked the court to halt illegal billing practices and freeze the assets of the owners of Crescent Publishing Group. Crescent Publishing operates the sites and also publishes High Society Magazine.

The owners allegedly charged consumers for browsing pornographic Web pages or taking online tours that were advertised as free. Consumers had to provide credit card information as proof that they were at least 18 years old.

The company also is alleged to have posted confusing charges on credit card statements under names that were different from the Web sites. For example, instead of a charge from "www.climaxmag.com" or another Crescent Publishing site, consumers' statements would list charges from "Online Forum, Inc.," "Hoot Owl, Inc." or "Knock Knee, Inc."

The suit also claims that the company rarely provided telephone numbers that consumers could call to question the charges. When the company listed numbers, the line would be busy or no one would answer.

The suit claims that some customers became so frustrated that they had to cancel their credit or debit cards to stop future monthly charges.

According to the brief, New York-based Crescent Publishing Group moved its banking operations to Guatemala in 1999. VisaUSA revoked the company's banking privileges in April, according to the brief filed today.

Neither of the defendants were immediately available for comment.

Similar to many adult sites and some e-commerce sites, Playgirl.com and Highsociety.com require credit card numbers for entrance to free areas as proof that their visitors are over 18 years old, Baker said. But simply entering your credit card information does not imply that you will be billed for viewing the sites, he said.

"It says specifically on that screen your card will not be billed, but if you click through their tour they deem you a member and bill you anyway," he said.

People were charged recurring monthly membership fees between $20 and $90, the complaints states. These fees would apparently show up with different billing names.

Once a judge has been appointed, a hearing will be scheduled for the case.