Toll Free Phone Number Scam

A really odd thing has happened twice now regarding toll free phone numbers. Has this happened to anyone else? Several months ago I called the toll free number I got from the website of a car dealer that was supposed to be the number to call to make an appointment to bring my car in for service. Instead, it was a recording saying they have a special offer of a $100 shopping certificate. There would be a $1.00 charged to my credit card. If I declined by pressing the # key I was presented with another suspicious offer. This was NOT the number to make an appointment for service. I triple checked to be sure I had gotten the correct phone number from the website. And then yesterday I dropped in to the office of my homeowner’s insurance to make a claim after having my house burglarized. They said I had to call the central office and gave me an 888 number to call. Again, I got a recording about a special offer of a $100 shopping certificate and this was not the number for the homeowner’s insurance. I called the local office back and they gave me another (correct) number that was not toll free. Any idea what’s going on?

In this particular case, I don’t know, but I have had a LOT of problems come up from calling a 1-800 number that was just one number off from the correct one. Even if that isn’t what happened here, it might be a similar scam. Basically, what happens is that the scammer collects your phone number and re-sells it to every phone spammer on the planet. And the messages you described were extremely similar to the ones I heard (offer of a free blah blah blah, just say on the line, press #, etc.) ICK. Just a head’s up so that in case this starts happening, you’ll have some idea why.

I try to keep track of this sort of scam as a hobby, and I am not aware of any kind of redirecting or hijacking procedure that diverts your call from what you intended, but I am aware of many numbers that are slightly different from legitimate ones that send your call to places you didn’t intend. So my WAG is that you miss-dialed (all it takes is one digit off!).

Please double & triple check what you dial. If you can be super, super-sure that you aren’t making a dialing error, the FCC and FTC should be notified (in the USA).

Also check with the car dealer to see if they have encountered this problem.

The car dealer said they heard the same complaint from other customers and they were investigating it. It was news to the homeowner’s insurance company. I wonder if someone hacked into the computer that responds to the toll free number and substituted their own response. I googled the sales pitch I heard and I see complaints of incoming calls with the same scam. Once they get your credit card number a bunch of bogus charges show up.

VOIP hijacking or using weak voicemail passwords to redirect calls is likely. Phreaking is actually older than computer attacks, but now that you can use cheap online VOIP trunks it is easier to brute force.

I am betting some PBX vendor used the same pin, or the owner never changed the default pin and someone decided to reprogram it.

As someone gave you the 888 number they may have given you the wrong number, but these types of attacks are not that rare. As more companies use VOIP the network based attacks have become more common.

I googled the phone number and I see another agent of the same homeowner’s insurance company giving it out. But I also see a lot of websites where people are complaining of getting harassing phone calls from that same number.

There was a time when all toll-free numbers started with “800.” Many years later, they added 888. And in recent years they have added 877, 866, 855, and 844. 833 and 822 are reserved for future use.

The 800 number thing is so burned into some people’s minds that they by instinct write (or dial) 800 instead of one of the new prefixes. This happens on web sites, on business cards, on stationery, in people’s phone directories, and when people dial. And many people don’t know about the relatively new prefixes and assume it must be a typo (or some sort of scam) when they see a new prefix.

You wouldn’t believe how many people dial 1-800-Kars-4-Kids instead of the correct number which is 1-877-Kars-4-Kids.

The simplest explanation is that somebody gave you (or you dialed) the wrong prefix.

800,888,877, etc. are area codes, not prefixes. The prefix is the second three digit set.

If you really want to knit some picks, 800, 888, 877, etc are not area codes. They do not refer to a geographic area. They are “service access codes.”

History of Toll Free Service (search for “SAC” on the page)

Code of Federal Regulations: 1985-1999

Knowledge Article: RingCentral Glossary of Terms (scroll down to “toll free number”)
Network World - Jun 19, 1989 - Page 51
Some of the other numbers that resemble area codes but are actually Service Access Codes are 500, 600. 700. 710, 900.

There is also the possibility of a mis-dial. where you dialed the correct number and the hardware processed it incorrectly. This was pretty rare in older pulse-dial systems, and is even more rare in tone-dial systems. But it can still happen. A common cause (in landline phones) is talking while dialing; with cell phones it’s usually related to transmission interference.

But system misdials are random; trying again won’t connect you to the same ‘wrong’ number. (Unless it’s an actual hardware problem in your dial, but that would usually happen for every number you dialed.)

Toll free phone numbers convert to what is called in telephony a POTS. A POTS is Plain Old Telephone Service. When you dial a toll free number such as 1-800-123-4567 it gets sent to a database which does a lookup and returns the POTS, which might be 213-555-1234. There can be a software bug where it doesn’t return the right customer record and instead returns a record for someone else’s POTS number. This could be happening, and if its a software bug that is causing it, it might be an intermittent problem. Either case, I would report it to FCC or whoever you can determine the phone carrier might be.

Except that 800 numbers were “features” of the phone system, not handled in the same way that ordinary telephone services were. The whole point of an 800 service was that it was possible to divert it to something that was not a geographically defined substation. Which meant that it always was and remains subject to capture and diversion.

But I think that is much less likely than the alternate explanation, that the “busy, please wait” message and criteria has been captured.

There is no except and I just explained what toll free and POTS were. I shared an actual real problem I experienced working in telephony. Toll free gets converted to POTS by database lookup. Geographic location has nothing to do with it. A software bug can cause an index to the wrong customer record or from other software anomalies. An incorrect customer record will yield the incorrect POTS.

Whoever is paying the bill for the toll free number needs to report the problem so the provider can open an investigation on it.

Unlike with plain old telephone numbers, which were geographically located.

However, that is much less likely to be the case than that the telephone system of the recipient has been captured (probably due to the use of a default password).

I have seen 833 numbers in use. 1-833-456-4566 is the suicide crisis line in Canada:

The ‘originating number’ given on incoming calls is about as secure as the return address on the outside of an envelope. Scam callers can put any number they want in there, and will use anything that they think will get people to answer. (Thus the common use of numbers similar to your own when calling you – they hope you will think it’s a neighbor calling.) So self-reporting by people does NOT mean the scam calls actually came from this number.

I expect scammers pick this number because they think people are more likely to answer if it looks like the call is coming from a home insurance company. Doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the actual company at that number.