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Warning! Don’t return that international call‚ lest you get caught in the latest phone scam

A new scam targeting cellphone users using international numbers is running rampant.
A new scam targeting cellphone users using international numbers is running rampant.
Image: 123RF/Michael Simons

To be a step ahead of the latest scam‚ don’t return a missed call from an international number you do not recognise.

This is the advice of advocate Jaqueline Fick‚ head of forensic services at Cell C.

This fraud‚ which can cost the caller R100 or R200 for single call‚ is "on the increase" in South Africa‚ she warned. Fick was speaking at the Annual Association of Certified Fraud Examiners African Conference in Sandton on Tuesday.

The way the fraud works is that scammers buy "premium" phone lines that charge a lot‚ such as R100 a minute‚ and then use software to send missed calls to hundreds of thousands of people.

A small percent of people return the call thinking they have missed an important phone call from a friend‚ relative or business abroad. What they don’t realise is that it costs them up to a R100 or more a minute because they are dialling this “premium number”.

The caller often hears someone pick up the phone and then may hear noise and be asked to wait while the person tries to get a clearer line. The scammer is trying to keep them on the phone for as long as possible. In some cases‚ scammers play the caller a recording of people fighting and the confused caller may stay on the line even longer trying to work out what is happening‚ explained Fick.

This fraud has a name: “Wangiri Fraud” - which Fick said “sounds like something you would put in a salad”. Wangiri is actually Japanese for “one ring and drop”. This is what happens. Your phone rings and then stops before you can answer it.

"Scams are often seasonal‚” Fick said‚ adding that wangiri scams were popular in South Africa at the moment. Cell phone companies are seeing a spike in phone calls from overseas countries at the moment‚ and she thinks it may be partly due to wangiri fraud.

According to Fick‚ wangiri fraud frequently starts on a Friday afternoon‚ as people are relaxed and have time to return calls.

In many cases the numbers are based abroad and money has to be paid from South African phone companies into foreign bank accounts. It becomes a sophisticated way to launder money‚ Fick explained.

She explained how the scam gets set up.

A group of criminals start a legal company abroad and open a handful of premium phone lines charging high rates per minute. Many times the phone lines offer phone sex or something else callers are willing pay for.

The telephone companies take a cut from the calls and pay the rest into the business's legal bank account. After a few months the operation turns criminal.

The syndicates call hundreds of thousands numbers across the world and wait for a few confused people to return the calls to the pricey numbers.

The equipment is portable so they could run a scam for two days and before the authorities have worked out who they are they have caught a flight “to the Bahamas”‚ said Fick.

“They may even continue to run the scam from the beach and make money on the run‚” she said. It’s a cross-border crime with multiple jurisdictions making it hard to catch those involved.

The phone numbers involved in wangiri fraud do get shared by telecommunications companies globally and blocked‚ but it can take a day or two‚ and by then the scammers have coined it‚ she explained.

Another way to move money across borders without exchange controls was to get new phone contracts under false pretences using stolen identities.

The new phone SIM card numbers are put in a special machine that calls international premium numbers over and over again running up a bill that can reach millions of rand in 24 hours. Local phone companies have to then pay the premium numbers based in another country.

Software will detect the unusual calling patterns and block numbers‚ but criminals usually make plenty of money before the forensic software kicks in.

Perhaps most alluring about this fraud is it allows criminals to shift money across borders from South Africa to where the number is based‚ without authorities getting involved.

Fick said to fight this crime‚ police‚ telecommunications companies‚ banks and global authorities all needed to work together.

Cybercrime was easy money and was done across countries in syndicates that know how hard it is to catch them‚ she said.

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