Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Scam Alert

There’s a package for you, but directions are needed for its prompt delivery. Or there’s important news about an exciting job opportunity, a sick relative or a big lottery prize.

That’s what the con men say when they call on the telephone or leave a voice-mail message. But if you bite on their bait by calling the phone number they provide to get more information, they’ll reel in your wallet and leave you poorer.

The scam has been around for years, and now there’s a new twist.

First, here’s how the classic version works: You’re asked to dial what looks like a normal phone number, but it’s no routine domestic call. Instead, these calls go to one of a handful of Caribbean nations that have American-style area codes and phone numbers, and don’t require the usual 011 code for international calls. Sometimes the calls go to Canada.

These foreign phone numbers are not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, so scammers based there can charge whatever they want for their victims’ callbacks.

And the charges can mount up, especially since you’re likely to encounter lengthy hold periods, prerecorded messages, frequent transfers and other ploys to keep you on the line for as long as possible.

$50 charge for a phone call

“We’ve seen instances where these scammers have applied additional charges of $50 per call,” says Bill Kula, a spokesman for Verizon Communications. “And that’s on top of standard long-distance charges for an overseas call.” Verizon charges up to $4 per minute for customers dialing the Caribbean who are not on an international calling plan.

Here’s the new twist to this scam. Thanks to improvements in telephone technology, the con men don’t even have to say a word. They place a call to your cellphone or land line, let it ring once or twice, and then disconnect without leaving a message. Or they send a text message to your mobile phone.

You might think it’s only polite to reply to a message or a call you’ve missed. The next thing you know, you’ve run up a huge bill.

And sometimes the sting is even more painful. If you’re responding to a notification that you’ve won a sweepstakes, you may be asked to wire money to cover processing or bank fees in order to collect your nonexistent winnings.

How to protect yourself

Your best protection against these international calling cons is simply not to call back any phone number with an unfamiliar area code. To check, type the three digits and the words “area code” on Google or another search engine.

The most commonly used area codes in this scam are 284 (British Virgin Islands), 649 (Turks and Caicos), 809 (Dominican Republic) and especially 876 (Jamaica). Other faux-American codes include 441 (Bermuda), 473 (Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique), 664 (Montserrat), 758 (St. Lucia), 784 (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) and 868 (Trinidad and Tobago).

You can also ask your phone service provider to block international calls and text messages coming from suspect area codes.

If you are billed for calls you made as a result of this scam, first try to resolve them with your telephone company. If that doesn’t work, you can file a complaint with the FCC online or by calling 1-888-225-5322 toll-free.

Thanks Jim E.

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