800 Phone Number Scam--who is paying?

A recent Reply All podcast delved into an obscure scam.

In short, someone is making hundreds of thousands of calls to 800 numbers. The calls are just recordings of random sound effects that sounds like a butt-dial, and spoof a random origin number. The investigators figure that this person is in cahoots with a phone company that is hosting the origination of the calls and collecting the charges for the calls. Calling an 800 number doesn’t cost the caller anything, but somehow money moves around between phone companies every time there is a call.

I do not understand the details of how inter-company billing works for 800 numbers. Is the 800-number holder paying a fee each time they get this type of call? Or is it phone companies that carry the call?

The scammers are making millions of dollars on this. FBI investigators have a profile of the scammer and figure it’s just a matter of time before they find “them.”

Can’t listen to that at work, but could it possibly be related to the Caller ID fees that robocallers use to make money?

It sounds like a distant cousin. One thing I don’t understand about the article you linked:

I don’t understand how the scammers are getting money. Am I getting a fraction of a cent per call in fees for calls I make? I don’t see it.

No, they’re talking about the robocallers. The robocallers are making the calls, and are receiving a fraction of a cent each time. That’s why it doesn’t really matter to them if you answer the call or not.

Seems like the FCC could instantly eliminate all illegal robocalls by eliminating this fee, but they’ve never indicated any intention to ever do so.

Yeah, that seems totally bizarre. Why would the caller get a cut of the caller id fee, especially when it’s just a tiny fraction of a cent? It seems like it would only benefit the large call centers, but I would expect them to be willing to pay for caller id to be attached to their calls.

I think the question was, why do robocallers get paid to call my number, when I don’t get paid when I call anyone else? Where do i sign up for this largesse?

It has something to do with being set up as a business. Here’s a more detailed article about the process:


There is a link in there to a YouTube video where a phone company is soliciting high-volume callers to get a piece of the pie. Both the caller and the phone company are getting money and providing zero economic value.

So the answer to my intermediate question is that you need a deal to get kickbacks from a phone company that will carry your outgoing calls. They, in turn, want companies who do high volumes (100s of thousands per month) of outgoing calls.

This is very similar to my OP, however, the robocalling to collect CNAM dip fees takes advantage of a legal loophole, where the 800-number scam seems to be fraud. I’m not sure why one is legal and the other is not.

Back in the late 1990’s, when I worked for an ISP that was also a CLEC (Competitive Local Exchange Carrier), there was a small fee that the receiving phone company was paid by the originating phone company when a call terminated on their network. In a normal situation (Say between Sprint and AT&T) there would be a reasonable number of calls in each direction (From sprint customers to ATT customers and vice versa) so that the fees would average out, or nearly so. However, since we were an ISP with thousands of dial-in lines that NEVER made an outgoing call, we actually generated several hundred thousand dollars a year in these fees from Sprint (the Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier, ILEC, in the area).

In retrospect, I realize that this would be the reverse of what the OP is talking about (probably), but perhaps it’s a useful data point.

My understanding is that, in the case of the podcast, Precision Interconnect (Jodi’s VOIP company), is paying for the calls. (That payment is distributed across whatever providers are involved in the connection, one of which is paying kickbacks to whoever is making the calls.) I assume Jodi’s paying a flat fee. So Harley–the manager at Precision Interconnect–should be very concerned about this.

The bigger mystery for me is: Where are the recordings coming from? Is the scammer secretly connecting to random phones and recording the sound?