17 May 2015

Scams, part 1

by Leigh Lundin

You may remember my friend Thrush who spared no expense helping us uncover an insidious scam for Criminal Brief. Last week, he found himself targeted in a rather more serious voice-mail scam:

Before you say “Seriously, people fall for this?” yes, they do. All the usual warning signs are present: It’s non-specific and lacks considerable detail. It carries an implied threat, in this case of a lawsuit, which a government agency would never leave on voice-mail. It sounds like the word ‘information’ is misspelled without the R and a legitimate caller would likely omit the ‘point’ in ‘seven-three-eight-point-one-nine-one-nine’. (I say ‘misspelled’ rather than ‘mispronounced’ because I believe the digitizer is reading from text.)

Why a digitized voice? It’s probably used to disguise the perpetrators’ heavy accents from the Indian subcontinent. That assumption is based upon calling their number after first prefixing my call with *67 to hide my own number from their caller-ID. I politely enquired if this was the IRS and a man replied in a rough accent. I asked for his agent number which seemed to disconcert him. He replied, “Just a minute,” and I heard the receiver covered followed by a muffled conversation. I hung up.

Imitating the IRS takes guts– or foolhardiness. It turns out this number, 202-738-1919, has appeared in other scams including a variation of the Nigerian scam in which recipients are told they’ve been awarded a $7000 grant. All they have to do is pay a 5% award fee ($350) via Western Union.

Many will recognize 202 as a Washington DC area code, but this might have easily been a different kind of scam, one in which the con artists trick the target into unwittingly dialing a ‘premium rate’ number and keeping him on the line as long as possible. The original flimflam began with area code 900 and its descendants– any area code beginning with 9– but people caught on. They flooded AT&T and government agencies with complaints, and these hustles gradually faded away.

But fraudsters in the Caribbean discovered they can turn any old number into a $20 to $60 a minute premium call and your phone company won’t do a damn thing about it. In fact, they’ll cut off your service if you refuse to pay a bill that may extend into several hundred dollars. Some of the worst offenders use area codes 809, 284, 473, 649, 876 (and the original 9xx numbers).

Thanks to Forbes, here’s a list of area codes to be wary of if you don’t know the party you’re calling:

use caution when dialing these area codes
242 284 649 784 868
246 345 664 809 869
264 441 758 829 876
268 473 767 849 9xx

Next week: Friends find themselves the subject of a current scam and, as I was writing about it, my own address was used to spoof others. Be cautious out there!

Images © the Better Business Bureau


  1. Thanks, Leigh, for the area codes. I get at least one call a day that I don't recognize on my landline. I let the answering machine pick up. Most of the time the caller hangs up. I've been trying to keep track of the area codes of the calls because it seemed some scammers used the same area code but different phone number.

  2. Useful info!
    These fraudsters and other phone pests would make nice targets for some enterprising mystery writer

  3. Great column, Leigh. I love to see posts on this subject. Most of our unwanted calls continue to be from William at Great Vacations or from Rachel at Credit Card Services (I'd love to throttle them both), but we occasionally see the more devious scams as well. Thanks!

  4. We registered our home number with "Nomorobo", Nomorobo.com, which has greatly reduced the number of these calls. Once registered when your phone rings any caller calling from a number on Nomorobo's list of nuisance callers is disconnected after one ring. The service is free, and was begun when the inventor won a contest sponsored by the FCC to find ways to filter out robocalls. Sadly, many phone providers don't allow you to subscribe to this (though ours, Verizon, does). Reportedly this is because legislators have tried to block access to the service because of lobbying pressures. (Can you guess which party?) Second "sadly" -- Even Nomorobo doesn't block the fake IRS scam Leigh reported. I know since we received the same call a couple months back. A good approach when you get one of these calls is to copy the telephone number and then google it. Invariably it has already been reported somewhere as a scam.

  5. Great post, & thanks for the numbers

  6. Thanks, Louis. As public memory fades of earlier scams, the frauds often return to bite consumers again, the worst kind of recycling.

    Wouldn’t they, Janice? Red, sticky stuff all over their robo-dialer? Ominous crystals in their coffee cup?

    John, funny but William and Rachel call me too! How fickle they are… I thought they and I were such great friends. My brother often asks for their home number and when they object, he reminds them that they know his number and it’s only fair he knows theirs. Somehow they don’t like that logic.

    Dale, I hadn’t heard of nomorobo before… I’m slow because it took me a moment to realize the name is derived from Spanish! Thank you.

    I never understood the ethics of politicians who vote in support of scammers and schemers arguing it’s a necessary part of free markets. Nonsense, fraud hurts legitimate businesses as well as consumers. Only the politicians benefit from lobbyist donations.

    Thanks, Eve. Naturally, if one has a great aunt Tilly in Grenada, it’s okay to call her, but most of us don’t and we have to be careful!

  7. Thanks for the area codes, Leigh. We have caller ID on our landline and I never answer it if I don’t recognize the number. I’ve seen some of the area codes you listed on our caller ID. I often get the impression that the same people change their entire number and call back again. It would be great if they’d invent a device where every time they called they’d get zapped with a jolt of electricity and their calling device would melt. Sigh. One can dream. (Thanks for the tip, Dale.)

  8. Vicki, my aunt used to keep a police whistle by her phone and when she received an annoying call, she'd give a blast. Let me know how you make out with nomorobo.com

  9. Janice, funny you would mention that. A scam against the elderly is what started the vigilante group in my latest crime series :)
    I never answer the phone anymore. I let everything go to the answering machine, except calls from family and close friends, if I can hear them.
    1 800 IGNORE ME is what we call any other numbers.

  10. Ha! Melodie, I like 800-IGNORE-ME. What is the title to your book?

  11. A Broad Abroad17 May, 2015 19:22

    In South Africa, we have only one landline service provider – Telkom, a parastatal - so fraudulent calls and genuine telemarketing are fairly limited. [Actually, they are more in their infancy - we are slow on the up-take in some areas!] With only five cellular service providers, and calls between cell phones and landlines being appreciably more costly, our baddies tend to use other avenues for their nefarious deeds.

  12. Good article. Leigh, and disturbing.
    I am not a candidate for Mensa, but I fail to understand how this works. How does the scammer benefit by running up a long distance bill? Don't long distance fees go to the phone company?
    I have a landline and pay a flat rate, so long distance charges no longer apply.

  13. Herschel, I think the phone company is actually acting as a third-party collector in this type of operation: the caller pays the phone company, which forwards the lion's share of the charges to the company with the 900-type phone line. When I was in the army, living in an apartment alone, I found I had been billed for some of these calls, and hadn't even been in the country at the time. The phone service discovered evidence that somebody had clipped into my line, in the main phone box for my building, using a blue phone or something. The charges were eventually removed, but it was an up-hill battle.


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