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One-ring phone scams surging

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Published:   |   Updated: February 12, 2014 at 09:21 PM

Tribune staff

If your phone rings once, then stops, think very carefully before calling that number back. There’s a good chance you’ll be smacked with a whopper fee from an obscure company in Bermuda, possibly Grenada. Sometimes for just $1, sometimes for $19.

Such “ring-back” or “one-ring” scams have long plagued the telecom world, but in recent weeks, the problem has come back strong nationwide.

As for what cell phone companies are doing to stop such home and cell phone “cramming,” there’s not much they can do, they say, besides tell customers to closely read their bill.

The scam works this way.

Perpetrators assemble a list of target phone numbers, then from almost anywhere they use “spoofing” software to ring those lines and make a distinct caller ID number appear on the victim’s phone. They let the victim’s phone ring once, then hang up.

Merely answering a call would not trigger a charge, and because the hang-up happens so quickly, there isn’t enough time for the target to answer the line anyway.

When the victim sees a call they missed, they feel the urge to call the number back, particularly if they’re in business and are using a work phone. However, calling that number is akin to ringing a 1-900 number, and the scammers “cram” a charge on the victim’s phone bill for some kind of phony service — since technically the victim did dial the phone number.

To some degree, the scam piggybacks on other legitimate phone billing systems, like those that let callers buy a special ringtone or make a collect call. The phony charge might not raise suspicion, as many times it’s for a small amount, and many people only look at their total phone bill and not the list of individual calls. Consumer advocacy groups have started warning about the practice, saying the calls often originate from area codes meant for The Dominican Republic (809), Jamaica (876), British Virgin Islands (284) and Grenada (473).

As for what the cell phone companies can do, they say their hands are tied to a great extent. Blocking calls isn’t feasible, said Verizon Wireless spokesman Chuck Hamby, “since we couldn’t possibly know which are legitimate calls.” Perhaps someone in Granada really was trying to ring your phone. Verizon is working with “appropriate authorities” to look into the practice, Hamby said.

“We encourage customers to not return a call to an area code they don’t know and to use their voicemail to filter calls and return those that need to be returned,” said AT&T Spokeswoman Kelly Starling. “We also advise customers to closely review their bills, and if there is any concern that there may have been fraudulent activity, call customer service so we can look into it.”

Sprint officials note their customers can block up to 40 phone numbers through their corporate website, setting the account to block any third-party charges.

Such scams do break federal telecom rules, but they’re not a small problem.

The enforcement side of the Federal Communications Commission estimates that between 15 million and 20 million U.S. households are hit each year with some form of “cramming” charge. While 82 percent of those are with land-line phones, 18 percent hit cell phone or VOIP services. Charges for services are explained on phone bills in general terms such as “service fee,” “service charge,” “other fees,” “voicemail,” “mail server,” “calling plan,” “psychic” and “membership;”

And the crime often hides under the radar, as only one in 20 victims tends to notice a problem. Calling your home phone or cell phone provider with a complaint is a good first step, the FCC says, but otherwise, they do have a complaint line at 888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322), and a special website at fcc.gov/complaints.

rmullins@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7919

Twitter: @DailyDeadline

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