Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Scammers are racking up hundreds of dollars per phone call by borrowing homeowners' phones and placing five-minute calls to expensive premium rate services.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2002]
Origins: This dire warning began its Internet life in June 2002 when it was penned by Paul Tosland, a Northamptonshire community police officer, who was acting in his capacity as the Corby Business Anti-Crime Network Administrator. The rumor itself was first noted in May 2002 when it was being circulated among local Neighbourhood Watch groups (which is possibly where Tosland picked it up), but it was his
Despite PC Toseland’s claim that the scam in question had been reported "five times in the last couple of weeks," his superiors were unable to find evidence to support his assertion and have since labeled the whole thing a baseless rumor. In August 2002, Northamptonshire Police publicly refuted Tosland's warning, saying "Information which is being circulated electronically to businesses by the force is not
The "phone charges" rumor is similar to the area code 809 phone scam in that the technique it describes isn't completely implausible, but the extent of the scam and the amount of money potential victims stand to lose have been grossly exaggerated.
If any groups of scammers are really going door-to-door in England to dupe homeowners into allowing them to use their phones to place calls to expensive premium rate services (familiar to Americans as "Pay-Per-Call" services which use area codes 900 and 976), then the anonymous author of this bit of Internet scamlore seems to be the only one to have taken note of it — neither the police nor the press in England has issued warnings about or reported real incidents of this occurring.
Moreover, it's just not possible that a scammer could rack up a £250 charge with a single five-minute phone call, as The Guardian noted in July 2002:
Two readers in Watford are alarmed by an open letter warning of the following scam: a distressed, smartly dressed woman rings the doorbell and asks to use the phone as her car has broken down. She spends five minutes on the line, then departs. When your bill comes you find you've been charged £250. "In fact," says the letter, "She has set up her own £50-a-minute premium rate line and dialled that number on your phone."As far as we know, ICSTIS (the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services) still doesn't have the power to force premium rate service operators to give refunds (they can only levy fines against operators), so English phone customers might conceivably be on the hook if they fell victim to such a scam. In the USA, however, a consumer could dispute such a fraudulent charge with his phone company (and report it to the FTC) to have it removed from his bill and charged back to the premium line operator. And while we don't know about English law, in the USA such a scammer could be charged with a criminal offense: even if you gave the scammer permission to use your phone, wire fraud laws (such as
"It's a hoax," says a spokesman from the premium-rate line regulator Ictsis. "The highest premium rate tariff available is £1.50 a minute and only network providers can dictate such charges."
This isn't a scam anyone really need fear, but those who worry nonetheless can employ a simple safeguard against it: if someone asks to use your home phone to make an emergency phone call, offer to place the call for him. Those truly in desperate need of a telephone rarely stand on ceremony and demand to dial it themselves.
Last updated: 7 January 2008
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