Sunday, August 17, 2008

#3. Telephone scams

Some scams involve the use of long-distance numbers to bilk victims of their money. Other “businesses” may engage in illegal tactics, such as long-distance “slamming.”

Mike sorted through the pile of mail he had received a day. Sometimes it was hard to tell the real bills from the junk mail. A brightly colored postcard with a picture of a new car caught his eye. On the back of the card was an announcement that he had won a valuable prize. There was an official looking stamp embossed on the card titled “Award Claim Number” with a long number following. The card appeared to be sent by the “National Awards Clearinghouse” at an out-of-state address. Mike studied the card carefully. There was a section of very small print that he couldn’t quite read. The card gave a number to call to redeem the prize. Mike figured he couldn’t lose anything by calling the number. After talking to the salesmen on the other end of the phone, Mike decided that the prize really wasn’t free and that he wasn’t interested. He didn’t realize he been scammed until he got the large phone bill the next month for the “900” number phone call.

Elements of telephone or area code scams

  • An offer of free merchandise or a free travel opportunity with a notice to call an unfamiliar telephone area code or 900 number. The notice can come on a postcard, letter, or email.
  • When the number is called, the person on the other end of the line tries to keep the caller on the telephone as long as possible.
  • A caller may leave a message on an answering machine requesting a callback about a family emergency or other important subject from a long distance number.
  • The victim is charged a substantial fee, in the form of long distance charges, to attempt to redeem the prize or premium.
  • Illegally switching your long distance service without your permission or knowledge.

There are hundreds of variations of the long distance area code scam. Arrangements with phone companies, sometimes in foreign countries, allow callers to be charged extremely high rates for telephone calls to a certain area code. In the United States, the most common is the “900” area code. Companies can purchase or lease a 900 number and the caller is then charged at the rate set by the company. Some companies use these numbers for legitimate purposes such as selling technical support.

In these types of scams, the scam artist tries to get you to make the phone call in an attempt to put you off guard. Sometimes the scam artist will even call and say that a member of the family has been injured or is seriously ill. The idea is to get the victim to return the call to the toll charging area code. When the victim calls the scam artists attempt to keep the victim on the line as long as possible thereby running up a very large phone bill. It can be very difficult for the victim to get the charges reversed especially if the phone number is in a foreign country. Sometimes, if the number is registered as an “adult” site, the caller may be too embarrassed to make an issue of the charge.

Just as with the telephone “free prize” offers, the solicitor will often attempt to get a credit card number for identification purposes. Had Mike given his credit card number to the salesman on the phone he may have also had unauthorized charges made against his credit card.

If you find that an authorized payment has been made from your checking account or that unauthorized charges have been made against your credit card account, is extremely important to contact the bank or card issuer immediately. In the case of credit cards, federal law limits the total amount of your liability. However, this is not the case with checking accounts. In some cases, if the bank is contacted quickly enough, you may be able to get your money back.

One type of telephone scam is “long distance slamming,” as seen in the following example:

Linda and her husband Ron really enjoyed going to craft and antique fairs. This Saturday they were looking for antique silverware. Linda noticed a booth with a sign for a free drawing. She picked up one of the cards and filled it out with her name, address, and phone number. However, she failed to read the small print on the card. Linda and Ron went on to enjoy their afternoon. The next month she received a bill from a new long distance company. The card she filled out at the antique fair had authorized a change in her long distance service provider. Linda was a victim of slamming.

“Slamming” refers to having your long distance service switched without your permission or knowledge. Slamming is illegal. Many state attorneys general are actively prosecuting companies for illegally changing long distance service. It is frequently impossible to tell you are being slammed. Telemarketers will call and represent themselves as calling from your present long distance service. They may not even refer to the name of the company they are representing. They may ask a misleading question such as “Would you like a lower-priced long distance service?” When you answer the question “yes” they switch the service.

If you find that your long distance service has been switched without your permission, report the problem immediately to your state’s consumer protection agency. Telephone service is a state and federally regulated business and most enforcement agencies are painfully aware of the problem.

Protect yourself by:

  • Not returning calls from strange area codes or 900 area codes.
  • Calling the relative or friend directly, if you are told by a strange caller about an illness or injury.
  • Calling the telephone company or looking on the Internet to identify the toll charging area code.
  • Understanding that if you call a toll charging area code you will receive a much larger telephone bill.
  • Throwing away “free prize” mail.
  • Never giving any personal or financial information, especially credit card numbers or checking account numbers to receive supposedly free merchandise.
  • Knowing that if there is a charge, the offer isn’t free.
  • Hanging up immediately when questioned about your telephone service and getting all information about rate changes in writing.
  • n Reading all promotions before signing to make sure you’re not authorizing a change in your long distance service.
  • Instructing your local phone service to make changes in your long distance carrier only upon verified authorization.
  • Demanding a full refund of any fees charged by a slamming company.
  • Reporting all slamming immediately to your state’s consumer protection agency.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What do I do with a landlord who never gets things repaired in a timely manner?