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Previous "Hoax du Jour" columns
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Related topic: rate your own Internet alert (or just-received warning from a well-meaning friend) against the Korova Drop-dead Internet Alert guide.
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The "Hoax du Jour" is a recurring column providing updated
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Lycos Guide: Urban Legends
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by Jan Harold Brunvand
September 1, 1999
Dire warnings about criminals and business fraud are nothing new to the "Hoax du Jour." There have been persistent 'Net rumors (Barbara Mikkelson calls them "scarelore") about women being abducted from malls (1, 2), and I've documented other false warnings in the past. Telecommunications fraud seems to have been on the rise, particularly "telephone slamming" (swiping your long distance service) and "Internet cramming" (billing for unexpected charges to your telephone bill).
This summer's grand prize hit, though, was a perplexing case of a three year old consumer alert getting a new audience online. The scam is real enough, but the chain mail warning is pretty stale.
----- Original Message -----
Tallahassee Police Department
(You are receiving this e-mail as a "blind cc" to protect the privacy of your e-mail address)
Beware of e-mails, phone calls or electronic pages which tell you to call an "809" area code phone number. This is a scam that is spreading extremely quickly, can easily cost you $100.00 or more and is difficult to avoid unless you are aware of it. This scam has been identified by the National Fraud Information Center, which said it is costing victims lots of money. There are lots of different versions of this scam, but here is how it works:
***Version#1: Internet-Based Phone Scam Via E-mail.***
You receive an e-mail, typically with a subject line of "ALERT" or "Unpaid Account." The message says something to the effect "I am writing to give you a final 24hrs to settle your outstanding account. If I have not received the settlement in full, I will commence legal proceedings without further delay. If you would like to discuss this matter to avoid court action, call Mike Murray, Global Communications at (809) 496-2700."
***Version #2: Phone Or Pager Scam.***
You receive a message on your answering machine, voice mail, or your pager which asks you to call a number beginning with area code "809." The reason you're asked to call can vary: It can be to receive information about a family member who has been ill, to tell you someone has been arrested, has died, or to let you know you have won a wonderful prize, etc.
The common denominator for both of these versions is the victim is instructed/asked to call the "809" number right away. Since there are so many new area codes these days, people unknowingly return these calls.
If you call from the United States, you will apparently be charged $25.00 per-minute! Sometimes the person who answers the phone will speak broken English and pretend not to understand you. Other times, you'll just get a long recorded message. The point is, they will try to keep you on the phone as long as possible to increase the charges. Unfortunately, when you get your phone bill, you'll often be charged more than $100! Here's how it works:
The "809" area code is located in the British Virgin Islands (the Bahamas). The "809" area code can be used as a "pay-per-call" number, similar to "900" numbers in the U.S. Since "809" is not in the United States, it is not covered by U.S. regulations of "900" numbers, which require that you be notified and warned of charges and rates involved when you call a "pay-per-call" number. There is also no requirement that the company provide a time period during which you may terminate the call without being charged. Further, where many U.S. phones have "900" number blocking (to avoid these kinds of charges), "900" number blocking will not prevent calls to the "809" area code.
It is recommended that no matter how you get the message, if you are asked to call a number with an "809" area code that you don't recognize, investigate further and/or disregard the message. Be very wary of e-mail or calls asking you to call an "809" area code number.
It's important to avoid becoming a victim of this scam since trying to fight the charges afterwards can become a real problem. That's because you did actually make the call. If you complain, both your local phone company and your long distance carrier may not want to get involved and will most likely tell you that they are simply providing the billing for the foreign company.
The Tallahassee Police Department contacted the National Fraud Information Center and verified that this is a real scam and not just rumor or "urban legend." They also told us that area code "809" is not the only area code used in these types of scams. Those perpetuating this type of fraud may use any foreign area code not subject to FCC scrutiny. But for now, "809" appears to be the most prevalent. You can contact the NFIC at (800) 876-7060 or contact them via e-mail at mailto:email@example.com. There Web site address is http://fraud.org/welcome.htm
If anyone in the Tallahassee area has received such e-mail or phone calls/pages, please report them to the Tallahassee Police Department immediately. Or you may contact Sergeant Phil Kiracofe, supervisor for TPD's Financial Crimes Unit at....
PLEASE FORWARD THIS "E-ALERT" TO ANYONE YOU KNOW WITH E-MAIL IN THE TALLAHASSEE/LEON COUNTY AREA. "E-ALERTS" ARE ISSUED BY THE TALLAHASSEE POLICE DEPARTMENT AS A PUBLIC SERVICE FEATURE. THE FACTS CONTAINED WITHIN ARE FOR INFORMATION PURPOSES ONLY. IF THE ALERT DEALS WITH SUSPECT(S) OR SUSPECT VEHICLES, DO NOT CONFRONT THE SUSPECT(S) OR ATTEMPT TO APPREHEND THEM IF THEY ARE LOCATED. INSTEAD, YOU ARE URGED TO CONTACT THE TALLAHASSEE POLICE DEPARTMENT AT....
These kinds of scams were a rampant problem ... in 1996. Various methods were contrived to get victims to call, or fax, fictitious entities in the 809 calling area. One of the methods reported in October, 1996, involved an e-mail claiming the recipient was the billing contact for a past due account which was about to be referred to a collection agency -- the recipient was asked to call an 809 number. While doing research on the chain e-mail, I found that the Better Business Bureau, FTC, and NFIC (Fraud.org) consumer information sites have numerous consumer alerts dating from 1996 and 1997.
Netizens may recall one of 1997's most notorious telephone scams, an unrelated but similar con game in which an online porn service required users to download a proprietary program to access and view images. The "download" program was actually a "modem hijack" Trojan that would log the user off his (or her) ISP, silence the modem's speaker, then dial a remote number ... in Moldava. Via kickbacks from the foreign phone company, the perp' would charge a hefty per-minute fee to the user's phone bill. Consumers received unexpected bills for several hundred, to several thousand, dollars. This is, essentially, the modus operandi of these con games. (This is called "phone cramming," and the FTC has since prosecuted several web site operators for this con.)
The text of the Summer '99 alert almost exactly matches an Internet ScamBusters consumer alert dated October, 1996. What's mystifying is why the Internet ScamBusters' "809 Scam" warning should suddenly be revived in May, 1999. The 1999 warnings I've read contain no new information.
Now, to be quite clear, this was (is) a very real scam that can be perpetrated against unwitting consumers. But the fact that a con game can be done doesn't necessarily mean it will be done ... against you. And, as most public information officers should know, it's counterproductive to distribute too much information of questionable value. It's the same "Chicken Little" and "Boy Who Cried Wolf" syndrome that countless virus alerts and 'Net rumors create every day. So ... what's the urgency in 1999?
Here's the clue. Area codes in America and nearby countries are administered according to the North American Numbering Plan (nanpa.com). A few years ago, 809 covered the needs of the entire Caribbean, but in the past few years additional area codes have been added, including 284, 473, 767, et al. (See NANPA for an entire, numerical listing.)
In May, 1999, an FTC press release reported court action against a scam in which consumers received an e-mail "confirmation" of a fictitious credit card order. The message enticed the addressee to phone a representative if he or she did not wish to incur hundreds of dollars in charges. The unwary netizen who called the 767 area number was eventually connected to an adult phone service with sexual content, yick. Later the netizen found a large charge on his/her long-distance phone bill. Reviewing NANPA's site, we find that the 767 code is assigned to Roseau, Dominica.
A month earlier, a post to USENET indicated that some e-j-mail advertising invited annoyed addressees to opt out of the unsolicited spam ... by calling a long distance phone number. The number in the 473 area turned out to be located in Grenada.
>Sun, 18 Apr 1999 23:20:57 -0700 (PDT) >Message-ID: <firstname.lastname@example.org> >From: [omitted] >Reply-To: [omitted] >Subject: FREE CASH GRANTS! (16803) >Date: Mon, 19 Apr 1999 01:09:28 -0400 (EDT) >MIME-Version: 1.0 >Content-Type: TEXT/PLAIN; charset="US-ASCII" >Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit > >TO BE REMOVED FROM OUR LIST, CALL 1-473-408-8465 ....
(Reviewing Korova.com's overflowing e-j-mail trash can, I found that most spammers use fictitious free-mail addresses, or dead-end 800 voice mail numbers, for opt-out requests. Usually they DON'T work. But that's another "Hoax du Jour.")
Obviously, some crafty con artists are renewing their efforts to bilk victims out of their cash by luring them to call expensive, toll phone numbers. What's new ... is that new con artists are using e-commerce ruses to entice victims to call these costly international numbers.
Rather than draft a NEW consumer warning about toll-call con games, someone, somewhere, must've thought we needed to get the OLD warning about 809 phone numbers, again. This someone must've felt that a chain e-mail letter was the best method. (Sigh.) Pardon the pun, but this unknown person apparently never played the game of "Telephone" as a child.
Revisiting the story of the now infamous "90# Phone Scam" (February, 1998), it's easy, too easy, for a well-intentioned alert to be edited, and changed, as it moves through e-mail, until the "forwardable" becomes so inaccurate as to become more of a problem than the scam or danger it purports to thwart. Worse, in the last year there have been one or two "missing child" alerts that were accurate for only a few days, but have been passed around the Internet for YEARS after the child was returned to safety. The harm? These chain e-mails cause needless concern among thoughtful netizens,... concern for a crisis that no longer exists.
Phil Agre, of UCLA, has an excellent primer on writing action alerts for the Internet. Anyone drafting new or revived consumer alerts like this should review it. Regularly.
If you receive one of the "809 scam" forwardables, I heartily recommend that you send your friends JUST THE LINK to the reputable sites that discuss them (including this one, if you like). DON'T forward your friends the text of the chain e-mail warning -- it's outdated, and incomplete.
And DEFINITELY think twice before calling a long distance number that you receive in unsolicited e-mail (or voice mail, or fax) from a stranger. If you don't know WHERE it came from, there's no telling WHERE that strange e-mail will tell you to go.
(P.S.: Due to runaway spam to my domain, I've had to change several e-mail addresses. Please use the MAILTO links provided on these pages, and refrain from using addresses that you might have bookmarked previously. Thanks.)
(A hearty "Hoax du Jour" ring of the bell to Virginia Cantu, Shannon Craig, Diana Davis, David Emery, Colleen Feldner, Beth Gayton-Gutierrez, Jim Hall, Carrie Mattson, Van Powel, Joel Rubin, Ron Stout, and Del Wheeler, Jr., among others, for tip rings to the 809 alert.)