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Don't let your phone be hijacked

You get a call from someone claiming to be a phone company technician who needs to check the lines and wants you to assist by dialing a series of numbers. Or maybe the caller says you've won a prize. To claim it, you must dial some specific numbers.

Warning: It's a scam. Actually, you're dialing the call forwarding code to your phone and forwarding your number to another number. Scammers can then use your line to make calls while you pick up the bill.

Call-forwarding scams aren't common, but they happen often enough that major telecom companies such as AT&T have posted warnings on their Web sites.

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If consumers "receive a call from someone they don't know and weren't expecting to hear from who asks them to do something, their guard should go up immediately," says Seth Bloom, spokesman for SBC Communications. "A legitimate company has no reason to call and ask you to hit a series of buttons or ask for your personal information."

Bob Nersesian, spokesman for AT&T, agrees. "Phone companies do not have technicians call and ask you to punch combinations of numbers," he says.

Call forwarding codes often vary depending on your phone company, so it pays to know your code. That way, you can recognize a scam for what it is.

If the person asking you to dial numbers is a stranger calling you collect, you really want to be suspicious. "Sometimes it's an inmate calling from a facility," says Bloom.

For the criminals, such ploys as the call-forwarding scam are a numbers game. Con artists "make a ton of phone calls, hoping to catch one consumer off guard," says Bloom.

But one warning that's making the rounds on the Internet is mostly an urban legend. The story: If you dial "90#" or "#90," you could give scammers control of your phone lines. And you could -- if you work in an office where you have to dial "9" to get an outside line.

"There are very few old business systems where people could take over your phone that way," says Lisa Hone, staff attorney for the Federal Trade Commission.

'Yes, yes'
A couple of years ago, one hot phone-hijacking scam involved changing outgoing messages to facilitate collect calls. Hijackers discovered that guessing the numeric pass code on certain voice-mail systems was fairly easy. They mostly targeted small businesses, and changed the outgoing messages to include a series of "yes" responses. Then on weekends or after hours, they would make international collect calls, which they charged to the businesses. When the operators called the businesses to OK the charges, they heard "yes, yes."

When Maureen Claridge, whose travel agency line was hit to the tune of $8,000, was alerted to the problem, she called to hear it for herself. "The voice was so realistic I said 'get off my phone,'" she recalls. "It certainly didn't sound like a taped message at all."

And while her local carrier quickly removed more than $400 worth of calls from her bill, she had to fight for more than a year with her long-distance carrier.

Her advice to consumers who sign up for a voice-mail system: Devise a numeric password that's lengthy, random and difficult to guess.

As added protection, some long-distance companies now require consumers to repeat a randomly selected series of numbers to verify their operators are obtaining collect-call permission from a live person.

Hello, Dolly?
Cell phones aren't immune to hijacking scams, either. Through a process known as cloning, cell phone signals can be captured by others. But the charges and the bill still go to the original customer.

With the advent of digital phones, cloning, while technically possible, "is significantly less of a problem," says Frances Feld, executive director for the Communications Fraud Control Association. "It is no longer something we stress."


-- Posted: Feb. 25, 2005



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