GUATEMALA CITY -- What began as telephonic safe sex has turned into a costly nightmare for thousands of Guatemalans.
Attracted by advertisements in newspapers, Guatemalans flooded telephone lines with calls to phone numbers offering "Love Without Frontiers" and "Horoscope of Love."
Many who dialed the advertised numbers did not realize -- or did not care -- that they were making an international phone call to Canada, at $2.95 a minute. When phone bills started arriving much later, some shocked Guatemalans suddenly faced bankruptcy.
In a few months, 70,000 calls were placed to the sex lines -- this in a country where barely two of every 100 inhabitants have a phone.
The calls made so far total 6 million quetzales, more than $1 million.
Abuse of the telephone lines has turned into a major scandal in Guatemala, forcing the government to set up a complaints office staffed by a public relations expert and a psychologist. Authorities have launched an international investigation, and several people have sued the phone company.
Many Guatemalans insist that neither they nor anyone in their homes made the calls. Angry customers have been storming phone company offices to protest their bills. About 2,500 formal complaints have been filed with the state-controlled telephone company, Guatel.
Sergio Morataya, a Guatel official who heads the investigation, said that in many cases, it turns out a family's children have indeed made the calls. In some cases, he said, the culprit has been a husband reluctant to confess his mischief. Guatel has agreed to suspend some of the bills pending investigations and has arranged payment plans for others.
"People arrive, hysterical," Mr. Morataya said. "Imagine if your bill is normally 80 cents a month, and suddenly you get a bill for $3,500. Logically, people were furious."
The ads initially did not mention a cost, as U.S. law would require, nor was an adults-only restriction included. Guatel ran subsequent ads informing the public that the calls were not free and has offered to block the line for customers.
Among those who have found erotic calls on their bills: the attorney general's office ($350) and the Jordanian Consulate.
Guatemala is not alone in the phone-sex crisis. Similar scandals have been reported in Venezuela, Argentina and Puerto Rico. Guatel officials say they are attempting to identify the businesses that are behind the sex lines. The businesses contracted through the Canadian phone company, which served as the carrier as part of a wider international treaty with Guatel.
Still, Guatel's attempt to distance itself does little to assuage people holding bills that average 5,000 quetzales, or about $880. Per capita income in Guatemala is about $1,000 a year.
Genaro Paiz Alinado, who is leading an effort to sue Guatel, told the magazine Cronica: "I've seen single mothers who work in sweatshops and rent out rooms in their homes [to supplement their incomes], and now can't pay the thousands of quetzales that appear on the bills of their tenants."
There is a widespread suspicion among Guatemalans that many of the bills have been inflated by Guatel. They point to at least one case of phone-sex calls that were billed to a disconnected number. But Mr. Morataya and other phone company officials deny that the bills have been tampered with, saying many Guatemalans simply find it too embarrassing -- and too expensive -- to admit they made the calls.
"We suggest to customers that they have more control over their telephonic apparatus," he said.