By Timothy Cox
Area law enforcement officials are warning residents about a potential telephone scam involving the 809 area code.
Local police officials say the scam, which is relatively easy to fall prey to, can cost unwary people up to $24,000, although there is conflicting information about the details of the scam.
The scammers are using the Dominican Republic-based 809 area code to dupe Americans into calling a telephone number that actually is a toll call at rates unchecked by U.S. regulations. Unlike most international calls, dialing a number in the Dominican Republic does not require a country code before the number, making the 12-digit number look like a domestic call.
The scammers are luring people to make the expensive calls by sending them telephone, e-mail or pager messages to call a number in the 809 area code. To pique the interest of the scam victim, the message claims to have important information about a family member, news about a sweepstakes win or that an overdue credit card account needs to be dealt with.
"Once the victim places a call, he is connected to a fax machine, lengthy recorded message or pay-per-call service with a hefty up-front fee, all intended to keep him on the line as long as possible while the clock ticks and the charges mount," says an explanation of the scam on the Web site snopes.com. Because the companies involved operate outside the United States, they are not bound by American laws on disclosure and notification of potential telephone charges before billing begins, the Web site says.
Snopes.com specializes in debunking common urban legends. But the 809 scam is real, not a myth, although the potential loss to consumers has been greatly exaggerated, information posted on the site says.
"Actually, a victim might be taken for $25 to $100, but not thousands of dollars," the Web site says.
In most cases, charges incurred by dialing toll numbers cannot be recovered from long distance companies. Some companies will adjust billing on a one-time basis in cases involving a scam.
Rockford Police Chief Paul May said the scam seems scary, especially for elderly victims who might easily fall prey to the ruse.
"It is so quick and so easy to fall into," May said. "We get a lot of calls from elderly people facing lots of different types of scams. They (scammers) just push and push to get what they want."
The National Fraud Information Center also recognizes the 809 phone scam and has warned businesses and consumers against falling into the trap. But that agency also notes that not every telephone number beginning with 809 is a scam-based toll call. In fact, all legitimate phone numbers in that part of the Caribbean Sea begin with those same numbers.
A statement on AT&T's Web site said e-mails such as the one circulating locally contain erroneous information. The statement backs up claims by snopes.com that the monetary figures are grossly inflated and that other details are not true, including the inclusion of a fictional AT&T employee listed in the e-mail.
"The 809 area code scam first surfaced five years ago and continue to victimize consumers on occasion, although much less frequently than in the past," an AT&T statement on the issue says. "There have been far more inquiries recently than consumers actually being victimized."
AT&T suggests consumers ignore any messages that seem suspicious or that they were not expecting.
Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey said he has heard of similar scams but said he does not recall any known cases of local people losing money to them.
"There's so many scams out there anymore. People need to be so careful. If you're not expecting a phone call from someone, don't return the message," Grey said.