Myth, busted: the missed-call scam

Warnings of a “one-ring scam” in which telephone customers return hang-up calls from foreign phone numbers, only to find they’ve been charged hefty fees and have their details stolen, are only partly true.

Although returning the call can cost some serious money, rumours are rife that these calls can somehow result in your list of contacts being downloaded or your banking details being compromised. This is fake news.

The scam
Telephone customers return one-ring calls from foreign phone numbers and are charged hefty fees.
This scam has been brought to the fore recently by news networks like MyBroadband and The Citizen, while providers such as Vodacom and MTN have sent customers warnings.

South Africans who received missed calls from as far afield as Guinea returned the calls, only to find that they have been billed exorbitant amounts, even if they were only on the line for a short time.

“Someone just told me she called back a missed call from Guinea and got charged R780 for a few seconds!” social media law specialist Emma Sadleir reported on Twitter.

MTN told MyBroadband that this is the resurgence of an old scam that originated in Japan known as Wangiri.

Wangiri literally translates to “one and cut”, implying that the phone is allowed to ring once before cutting the call.

Computers randomly dial numbers and drop the calls in the hope that unsuspecting victims will return them, only to be billed at premium rates.

“Our investigation has found that some of these numbers are designed to prolong customers to stay longer on the line by a recorded ring-tone or a long recorded message,” MTN says.

Vodacom sent out an advisory about the surge in Wangiri fraud, and told its clients not to return calls from unknown international numbers.

Fact versus fiction
Here’s the fact and the fiction surrounding this scam.

False: Returning a “one-ring” foreign call will enable scammers to download your contacts list and access your financial account information.
This is an impossibility. The only way this information can be compromised is if you provide the scammer with it.

True: Phone scammers sometimes lure potential victims through the use of “one-ring hang-ups”. Numbers can be set up to charge a premium fee, and when calls are returned unsuspecting victims are billed exorbitantly.
Scammers may also use their wits to elicit sensitive and confidential information from victims, such as financial details.

Origins
The “one ring” telephone scam is similar in form to the venerable 809 area code scam in that both involve trying to dupe unwary phone customers into calling a foreign phone number in order to stick them with hefty charges. While the 809 scam involves sending pages, faxes, voicemails, or e-mail messages that supposedly relay important information (e.g., news about a distressed family member or a notification of prize winnings) in order to lure the recipient into calling a provided phone number, the “one ring” scam employs a simpler technique: the scammers place calls to blocks of phone numbers (sometimes with the use of robo-call devices), disconnect each call after a single ring, and hope that the owners of some of those numbers will be curious enough to call back.

Dubbed “one-ring hang-ups,” the scheme targets millions of mobile-phone lovers. Unscrupulous operators make thousands of random calls from normal phone lines, letting the phones ring once before hanging up. They count on inquisitive folk, or those anxious not to miss a single call, ringing back the number shown on their screens.

Once hooked, the victims of the “one ring” scam are supposedly separated from their money through a variety of means: keeping them on the line for as long as possible while they rack up international call tolls, duping them into unknowingly calling premium-rate phone numbers (akin to the 900 Pay-Per-Call services), or enticing them into signing up for pricey services. As with the 809 scam, however, it appears that the prevalence of the one-ring scam and the potential damages its victims might suffer are considerably lower than the circulated warnings about it often suggest.

It’s certainly not true, as stated in the example cited above, that the mere act of calling a particular number would allow a phone user’s contacts and banking information to be stolen by someone else. That sort of information would be compromised only if another party somehow hacked into the user’s phone (via a malicious app or other code) and/or the user actively did something to enable access to it. (In either case, there’s no obvious reason why such a scheme would require the victim to place a call to the information-stealer rather than the other way around.)

Some versions of this warning maintain that “You may also be charged a monthly fee for joining some club you know nothing about. By calling the number, you ‘authorize’ them to place a fee on your cellphone bill.” However, it seems to be more the case that victims aren’t subscribed to services simply through the act of calling a phone number, but rather that the scammers use social engineering techniques (including harassment) to persuade them to subscribe to pay services or give out their credit card information.

Those who do [call back] find themselves listening to advertisements for all sorts of dodgy services. Some firms try to hook callers into subscribing, say, to high-priced chat-lines or Internet services. Others dupe callers into providing credit-card numbers. Using caller-identification in reverse helps to harass more users. Some victims decide it is easier to pay than face fresh hassles. Even if only a small fraction are snared, it is still a lucrative ploy: their own charges are small since they never give their quarry a chance to answer.

Other versions of the warning caution that cell phone owners who return one-ring calls are charged $19.95 for an “international call fee” and then a “$9.00 per minute charge” on top of that. But Sprint currently lists its standard rate for placing calls from U.S. cell phones to the countries mentioned in the above example (Belarus and Latvia) at between $2.65 and $2.69 per minute (and as low as $0.41 to $0.43 per minute if the caller subscribes to an international long-distance plan), so a victim who returned such a

call and stayed on the line for a couple of minutes before hanging up might realistically be out $5 or so in toll charges. Phone customers can generally get any “premium service” (i.e., “international call fee”) charges tacked on to such a call reversed by contacting their phone service providers and documenting the circumstances of the call.

Many forms of this warning list specific country/area codes that phone users should never place calls to (because of their association with various phone scams), including 473 (Grenada), 268 (Antigua), 876 (Jamaica), 809 (the Dominican Republic), 375 (Belarus), 371 (Latvia), and 284 (the British Virgin Islands). There is, of course, nothing wrong with connecting to numbers with these country/area codes if you happen to know whom you’re calling: all cautions regarding the one-ring scam (and similar schemes) apply only to solicitations to contact entities unknown to you. If you have to call a number associated with a dialing code that’s unfamiliar to you, you can use a code lookup site to check it out first.
Do not return phone calls from foreign numbers you do not recognise. If the person on the other end is legitimately looking for you, the chances are they will not hang up are one or two rings, and they will leave a voicemail message.

By Barbara Mikkelson for Snopes; Jan Vermeulen for MyBroadband

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