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Area code 809 telephone scam proves costly for victims

Alana Dunn / Reporter

People who don’t pay careful attention to the phone numbers they dial could be in for a hassle – and a hefty charge on their phone bill.

Elon University faculty and staff have recently been alerted about a costly telephone scam involving area code 809, which is an area code based out of the Caribbean. Although first reported as early as 1996, the 809 scam has recently resurfaced, bringing with it a new wave of victims.

According to the National Fraud Information Center, here’s how the scam works: typically, a scam artist leaves a message on Victim A’s answering machine requesting that Victim A call a number that begins with an 809 area code. The message usually says that Victim A’s relative has died, been arrested or injured, and Victim A should call back immediately for more information. Once Victim A returns the call, the scam artist tries to keep Victim A on the phone as long as possible to increase Victim A’s long distance calling charges.

The National Fraud Information Center also reports that the scam works because the 809 area code is located outside the United States, and is therefore not subject to U.S. laws. This means that the scam artist does not have to tell callers in advance about how much the call will cost. Consequently, victims of the scam are unaware that they could face charges of anywhere from $25 to nearly $2,400 per minute.

So why don’t people altogether avoid calling a number with an 809 area code? Part of the problem is that most people don’t know that 809 phone numbers are located outside the United States because an international calling code, such as 011, is not needed to dial an 809 number. Another problem is that many phone numbers with 809 area codes are legitimate, such as a person’s phone number in the Dominican Republic.

Carol Brown, manager of Elon University’s Information Systems and Technologies, or IS&T, said that the university has not actually been affected by the scam. She attributes Elon’s good fortune to use of reputable telephone vendors, scrutiny of phone bills and the termination of student long-distance service.

“We belong to a variety of telecommunications organizations and agencies,” Brown said. “So we receive notifications, such as calls, e-mails and newsletters, about different scams that are going on.”

Mike Thompson, also of IS&T, said that the university is also able to put a block on any suspicious area codes. “When we block these area codes, it means we can’t make or receive any calls from those numbers,” he said. “But we can lift the block if someone needs to call a number they know is legitimate.” As of Oct. 28, the university blocks the following area codes: 242, 246, 264, 268, 284, 340, 345, 441, 473, 500, 649, 664, 700, 758, 767, 784, 787, 809, 868, 869 and 876.

Although Elon faculty and staff were warned about the 809 scam, students were not alerted. “I’d only heard about the scam because of my mom,” said sophomore Abbey Lepley. “She always had a little post-it by the phone at home that said not to call any 809 numbers.”

Because Elon students come from a variety of states and countries, all with different area codes, they may be at greater risk of being scammed. For example, many North Carolina students could be unfamiliar with the area codes of their Pennsylvanian friends’ phone numbers, so a legitimate Pennsylvania area code could look as foreign as that of a scam artist in the Caribbean. “Students shouldn’t call any phone numbers with area codes they don’t recognize,” said Brown. “They should verify the number with their friends, first, before they do any dialing.”

Contact Alana Dunn at pendulum@elon.edu or 278-7247.