While e-mail has proven to be a sophisticated and efficient means of
communication in recent years, it has also facilitated rampant rumor
circulation, including a recent message warning consumers they could be
charged $2,425 per minute for dialing numbers in the 809 area code.

E-mail fiction has become increasingly difficult to weed out from
fact, since rumor messages often sound legitimate and, in many cases,
even originate from well-meaning yet misinformed consumers.

The 809 area code scam “can easily cost you $24,100 or more and is
difficult to avoid unless you are aware of it,” writes a concerned
citizen, who describes the operation in a widely circulated e-mail.

“You will receive a message on your answering machine or your pager,
which asks you to call a number beginning with area code 809. The reason
you’re asked to call varies. It can be to receive information about a
family member who has been ill, to tell you someone has been arrested,
died, to let you know you have won a wonderful prize, etc.

“In each case, you are told to call the 809 number right away. Since
there are so many new area codes in use, people unknowingly return these
calls. If you call from the U.S., you will apparently be charged $2,425
per minute.”

Some victims hear a long, recorded message when calling the 809
number, the e-mail continues. “The point is, they will try to keep you
on the phone as long as possible to increase the charges.”

“You’ll often be charged more than $24,100,” according to the
widespread rumor.

But how much truth is in the latest electronic panic attack? The

National Fraud Information Center
told WorldNetDaily it issued a warning on the 809 area code scam in 1996, and the group has not received many complaints since that time. As for the cost of the phone calls, scam artists usually charged around $8 per minute, and the average call costs $25 — a far cry from the wildly exaggerated $24,100 claimed in the e-mail.

“The e-mail is generating a lot of fear,” said a spokesperson for the NFIC, more fear than may be warranted.

Similarly, the

Federal Trade Commission
dealt with a few cases involving 809 numbers four years ago and issued a

warning on its website.
Current investigations are not public, according to FTC spokeswoman Brenda Mack, who said the last-known case was resolved in 1996.

During those investigations, the FTC also uncovered two other area codes, 574 and 666, that were being used in the pay-per-call scam.

“Unless you actually have relatives in the Caribbean, which is where the 809 area code is located, don’t return the telephone or pager messages to this area code,” the FTC advises. “The call is directed to a pay-per-call line, similar to a 900 number, and you risk getting billed outrageous amounts for the call. Some consumers have reported calls costing $25 or more.”

Some tip-offs to phone fraud, as listed by the FTC, include offers of “high-profit, no-risk” schemes and “free” gifts or vacation where the consumer pays for “postage and handling.”

The FTC advises consumers to “always ask for and wait until you receive written material about any offer or charity” before making a commitment to telemarketers. “Never respond to an offer you don’t understand thoroughly,” and “be aware that any personal or financial information you provide may be sold to other companies.” Consumers are also reminded of their right to be put on a telemarketing company’s “do not call” list.

As for separating e-mail fact from fiction, the NFIC says telltale signs of a hoax are misspelled words, grammatical errors, claims that the message is “not a hoax” and attempts to impart a sense of urgency.

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