Prison inmates have devised a new scam to make collect calls on the proverbial dime of unsuspecting citizens. It all hinges on fraudulent activation of a common feature on home telephone lines, call forwarding.
In previous “slammer scammer” telephone schemes, inmates called people at home and feigned an emergency to get them to push *72 or other codes to turn on call forwarding to a buddy’s number. But the new ploy is completely stealth as far as the victim’s concerned—until the bill arrives.
Investigators believe that it starts with an accomplice outside the prison searching phone directories for multiple numbers belonging to the same person. The accomplice then calls these numbers, seeking fax or computer tones.
Fax and computer lines “are specifically targeted because they’re not monitored as much as someone’s primary phone line,” notes David Ovalle, a Miami Herald newspaper reporter who detailed the scheme in retiree-rich South Florida.
Then the accomplice activates the number’s call-forwarding feature to direct all calls to a third number. Exactly how this is done isn’t clear, according to Dorothy Cukier of Global Tel*Link, a company that operates telephone systems in detention facilities throughout the United States. But everything’s now in place. Dialing from a prison phone, the inmate places a collect call to your number. But the call is automatically forwarded to the third number, where a buddy answers and accepts the call. They talk as long as they want. It’s you who gets stuck with the bill later on.
Customers at risk
In South Florida, victims have included a federal judge and an architect who designed one of the prisons from which the scam was originating.
One victim, an 83-year-old retired physician in Miami, tells Scam Alert that his account was hit with $150 in calls made from a Fort Lauderdale prison.
Starting last October, he called his phone company, AT&T, “many, many times” to dispute the calls, which had cost $3 to $4 per minute. “It took me four months to eventually have those charges dropped—and that was only after I spoke to three people at the Florida Public Service Commission,” which regulates utilities in that state.
According to Cukier, it’s unclear how frequent or geographically widespread this scam is. But she confirms that her company has reimbursed people nearly $200,000 for calls of this type in the past two years.
Phony phone call protection
AT&T spokesman Steven Schwadron offers this advice to customers to protect against such call-forwarding scams:
- Ask your phone service provider for an account PIN or password that will be required from anyone calling a customer service center to make changes in your line. Ask that a “collect call block” be placed on your account. And call your provider if you believe you’ve been caught in a call-forwarding scam.
- Carefully read your monthly phone bill, looking for unusual charges—including third-party charges, which are often listed on a separate page.
- Contact local prisons to request that calls to your number from its telephones be blocked.
- Pay attention to your phone’s ringing pattern. If your phone frequently rings just once, it could indicate that a call to your number is being forwarded.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.