Monday, October 15, 2012

Cyber Crime: Unsuspecting Indians fall prey to Call Fraud

The phone rang once and was instantly cut. Sixty year old Sally gave a passing glance at the missed call number which began with + 22 – her local Mumbai code and called back.  At the other end of the line, she heard the mournful shrieks of a women being beaten, and the savage voice of a man hurling constant abuses. Worried, confused and in fear that she may have received an SOS call, she asked “Who’s there, Is there a problem, Stop it”.

In the following 3-4 minutes, before she had time to think clearly, her phone conversation was cut short, due to a lack of funds. The Rs 200 ($ 4) she had recently topped up her account with, was exhausted. At the mobile store, she was informed that as she made a call to a premium rate number which charged Rs 50 per minute, her balance was consumed. There was no refund. The telecom provider was not at fault. She should have checked the number before she made the call. Only later, did she read in the national newspaper that such frauds were widespread.

As she recounted this incident to her neighbor, she asked “If the frauds were so well known should not the telecom company and the government have done something about it”.

India is a large prepaid market, and international fraudsters have conjured several tricks to coax vulnerable people into making such calls to international premium rate numbers. Calls are charged at a premium to normal calls. Such numbers are regularly used for adult sex, directory enquiries and voting for contestants during game shows.

 Fraudsters buy these premium rate numbers from international telecom companies, and earn money by sharing the revenue for calls made to these numbers. They grow their earnings by raising call volumes using automated dialers and other such schemes to dupe victims into calling these numbers. The revenue sharing arrangement, some would argue, reduces a telecom’s self motivation to check such activity, unless forced to do so by law or regulation.

The fraudster’s first objective is to dupe people into making a call to the premium rate number. They do this by making several “ ring once and cut” (missed) calls to a victims phone, thereby creating a sense of urgency  to call back, and to make the missed call number appear local by using international numbers which are similar to local codes. For example an international number +224 may be mistaken for the “022” Mumbai code, by individuals unfamiliar with international dialing.

The second objective is to try and keep the victim engaged on the call for as long a time as possible. A longer duration call results in higher revenue to the fraudster. This is usually done, by playing a recorded audio tape of a women being abused, having sex or by using a real life operator masquerade as an agent for schemes such as a lottery the victim is supposed to have won. The operator takes time to brief the victim on the win, and even notes down personal details such as his or her postal address to mail the award too. Personal information can later be used for other types of online scams.

Stolen phones are also used to call premium rate numbers.  Fraudsters usually do this immediately after the theft.  Tourists who lose their phones abroad will quickly find out that their set credit limits do not apply - due to the delay in receiving billing data from the foreign carrier. Bills may be huge.

Safety Tips to Keep in Mind to Avoid Call Fraud

1.    Do not call back on unknown international numbers. Be suspicious of “a one ring and cut” call.

2.    Disable the international dialing facility, if not needed

3.    Report a stolen phone and have the number blocked immediately

Actions Telecom operators and the Law can take

1.    Telecoms should enable international calling on request, and not by default.

2.    Telecoms should detect if premium rate numbers were used fraudulently through a study of call patterns

3.    Governments should enact strict laws and penalties to discourage such crimes

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