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Toll-free hot lines can come in handy

A homeowner is irritated over unsolicited reading material in the mail. A small businessman wants to know about low-cost crime insurance. A parent becomes aware of a missing child. Where do they go for help? Who can give them a straight answer? Try the ``hot line.'' Federal and state governments, private industry, and service organizations have established telephone services to inform people where they can go for help to solve personal and community problems. Using the phone can avoid delays and clear up a minor problem before it becomes a crisis.

Parents who need help or have questions about missing children may call the National Center for Missing Children in Washington, D.C. The number is 1-800-843-5678. Battered wives may often find support in their community by calling ``Hotlines for Help,'' set up as a free telephone counseling service by local volunteer groups. These numbers are usually listed with the police department, women's shelter, or hospital emergency room.

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Taxpayers who want to talk one-on-one with the Internal Revenue Service can find solutions to their individual tax problems by calling the national toll-free number, which is, fittingly, 1-800-424-1040.

Another busy number is the Unsafe Product Complaint number of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission at 1-800-638-2772. Questions range from swimming pools to toys to recalls of specific products, depending on the season. The Auto Safety Hotline of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will answer your questions about recalls on questionable automobiles, if you can provide the vehicle's year, make, and model number. Information on baby car seats and auto safety defects is also provided. The number is 1-800-424-9393.

Parents Anonymous lists a national number of 1-800-421-0353 . This free service offers help to parents who are concerned about their relationship with their children. PA callers are referred to resources within their own communities.

Most states have their own toll-free numbers to report incidents of child abuse or neglect. Call the 800 operator or the local office of the department of social services for your state number.

New toll-free numbers are added every day. Numbers are subject to change without notice, and the 800 operator does not have a comprehensive listing of all toll-free numbers available. For a specific number, call 800 information at 1-800-555-1212 and give the name and location of the company or service you want.

Neither American Telephone & Telegraph nor the local phone companies have a consumer directory of toll-free listings. But AT&T has its own free number to handle questions about telephone charge cards. The number is 1-800-CALL-ATT. Call also to cancel a card or report a theft or loss.

Most states have free numbers for their travel/tourist departments. Ask 800 information for the tourism number in the state that interests you.

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Other popular numbers are:

Magazine Action Line: 1-800-645-9242 (in New York 516-883-5432). This publisher's clearinghouse offers help to those with magazine subscription problems. They also try to stop unsolicited publications from appearing in your mailbox if you send the label and a brief description of the problem.

Homeowners who want to conserve energy in their homes or install solar energy systems may call the Conservation and Renewable Energy Referral Service at 1-800-523-2929. This is a federally funded clearinghouse, which also refers callers to individual state toll-free numbers.

One of the more comprehensive books available is the Directory of Toll-Free Numbers, by Rudolph F. Graf (Pocketbooks). It lists 25,000 free phone numbers in the United States. The book has no table of contents or index, however, and requires some digging to find the number you want.

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