Fact Check

Mobile Phone Scam

Are mobile phone owners in Britain being tricked into calling a number that charges them 50 pounds a minute?

Published Feb. 21, 2004


Claim:   In Britain, mobile phone owners are being tricked into calling numbers that charge them £50 a minute.

Status:   Multiple — see below:

  • Mobile phone users are being lured into placing calls for which they will be charged £50 a minute:   False.
  • Similar schemes that rack up tolls at much lower rates are afoot:   True.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2004]

There is a new kind of mobile phone scam. A missed call will show on your mobile phone. The number is 0709 020 3840! The last four numbers may vary, but the first four numbers will remain the same! If you call this number back, you will be charged £50.00 per minute. People have complained about their phone bills, once they have realised the cost of the call, but apparently this is completely legal. So beware, do not call back numbers beginning with 0709.

Origins:   We encountered this caution against returning calls to numbers in the 0709 prefix in February 2004. Akin to its widespread and long-lived American counterpart, the 809 area code warning, this advisory about the 0709 prefix asserts phone users are being duped into calling numbers that will result in their being charged exorbitant sums.

Some of the e-mailed alerts begin in this fashion:

All this is TRUE one of my friends looks after the BT Vodafone contract and has checked this out with Vodafone.!! Its not a HOAX beware and pass it on.

Helpful disclaimer that "Its not a HOAX beware and pass it on" to the contrary, there can't be anything to this. According to the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS):

Over the last few days ICSTIS has received hundreds of enquiries about the above 'scam', which is being widely publicised by e-mail. To help us put an end to the current spate of enquiries, please pass this information on to all contacts.

The apparent 'deception' takes place when people receive a recorded message informing them that they have won an all-expenses paid holiday and are asked to press 9 to hear further details. It is then claimed that callers are connected to a £20.00 per minute premium rate line that will still charge them for a minimum of five minutes even if they disconnect immediately. It is also claimed that, if callers stay connected, the entire message lasts for approximately 11 minutes, costing £220.00. Please note this is not true.

A £20.00 per minute premium rate tariff does not exist - the highest premium rate tariff available is £1.50 per minute. Despite the hundreds of enquiries received by ICSTIS about this 'scam' (and most have heard about it second or third-hand), not one person who claims that it has actually happened to them has been able to produce a phone bill to support their story.

ICSTIS urges any individual or organisation that receives an e-mail about this scam to delete it immediately. Please do not forward it on to others.

Although the ICSTIS page speaks to a con similar to but yet not quite the same as the one described in the 0709 caution, its point about the premium rate tariff being capped at £1.50 a minute holds true here as well — users cannot be charged the £50 a minute the e-mail would have them believe.

However, while there are no £50-a-minute scams out there to worry about, frauds that operate along the same line (but at far lower rates) do exist and do take in the unwary. The problem of mobile phone users receiving "missed call" notifications soliciting them to dial numbers for which they will be charged at rates higher than they might otherwise expect is on the rise. Those so duped get drawn into returning calls that promise they've won prizes and thence into staying on the line in pursuit of same while the meter runs.

Similar scams have been running in Japan at least since 2002. Known as "wangiri," this form of illegal come-on is often perpetrated by pornographic telephone services that dial victims at random by using special electronic devices that allow them to call thousands of numbers in the span of a few minutes. Such calls ring only once before disconnecting, which is just long enough to leave intriguing unknown "missed call" messages on cell phone users' displays. Those prompted by curiousity into returning such calls find themselves connecting to taped sexual messages or information on other types of adult entertainment, with those who choose to remain on the line charged high per-minute rates for the duration of the calls.

The term "wangiri" derives from combining the English word "one," pronounced "wan," and the Japanese word "kiru," meaning "to cut off" and refers to the practice of ringing once then hanging up. Wangiri operators have repeatedly paralyzed broad areas of Japan's telephone networks, in 2002 prompting the government of that country to enact laws against the practice. Those laws carry penalties of up to one year in prison or fines as high as 1 million yen.

In February 2004 the ICSTIS had two firms which were using the scheme shut down. ICSTIS external affairs manager Richard Sullivan said the practice was "clearly in breach" of its code. His advice to mobile users: "If you get an unsolicited number on your phone our recommendation is not to call it. Most of the premium rate services are absolutely fine but there are a very small proportion of people damaging the industry."

Barbara "prefixed for your convenience" Mikkelson

Last updated:   7 January 2008

  Sources Sources:

    BBC News.   "Clampdown on 'Missed Call" Scam."

    18 February 2004.

    Birmingham Evening Mail.   "Warning Over Phone Scam."

    18 February 2004   (News, p. 13).

    Channel 4 News.   "Mobile Scam."

    18 February 2004.

    Japan Economic Newswire.   "'Wangiri Fraud on Rise as Mobile Phone Use Increases."

    29 July 2002.

    Japan Economic Newswire.   "Gov't to Make Wangiri Calls Punishable by up to 1 Year in Jail."

    16 October 2002.

    The Japan Times.   "NTT Units Plot 'Wangiri' Crackdown."

    2 August 2002.

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