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Phone Card Fraud Flourishes Among Recent Immigrants : Crime: Using stolen access numbers bought for $10 or $15, impoverished new arrivals can stay in touch with home. But the abuses cost carriers an estimated $2 billion a year, and some have limited calls to certain countries.


SANTA ANA — The cars began arriving early in the convenience store parking lot one recent morning, the passengers spilling out to gather around a battered white sedan.

The crowd shoved telephone numbers scrawled on bits of paper into the hands of the sedan's two occupants before dashing back to their cars to follow the white car out of the parking lot.

The scene was characteristic of a "call/sell" operation, a telephone fraud in which people buy the use of a stolen calling card number to make international calls for as little as $10 to $15 an hour.

According to officials from several long-distance carriers, call/sell operations can be found in every large city and often operate in areas with large populations of new immigrants.

Peggy Snyder, the executive director of the Communications Fraud Control Assn., a nonprofit clearinghouse of information about telecommunications fraud, is not surprised that call/sell operations are found in communities where many recent immigrants have settled.

"It makes sense," Snyder said. "Many new immigrants have family in other countries, and because they are new arrivals, they possibly can't afford to have a phone or make long distance calls. If someone offers them a cheap way to call home, I think most people would pick up on it."

Recent studies by the U.S. Secret Service estimate that call/sell operations and other types of long-distance telephone fraud cost phone companies, and ultimately the consumer, almost $2 billion a year.

Security officials said criminals use a wide variety of methods--from simple eavesdropping to videotaping customers using pay telephones--to obtain calling card numbers.

One of the most common methods is "shoulder surfing"--standing behind someone at a pay telephone and watching the numbers they punch in. Thieves have also been known to acquire numbers by standing outside telephone booths and recording customers' conversations with operators.

Fraud experts said that most calling card numbers are stolen in busy areas such as airports and other transportation centers, but that with a few common-sense precautions, customers can protect themselves.

Even at home, calling card customers should remain cautious.

GTE spokesman Dan Smith said con artists will often attempt to obtain card numbers by calling a home and identifying themselves as telephone company investigators or police officers.

A favorite method, Smith said, is to tell customers that fraudulent calls have been made on their card and that before the charges can be removed, they will need to give their card number for verification.

Asking a customer for a calling card number is a sure sign that the person on the other end is not a legitimate telephone company employee, Smith said.

"No phone company would ever ask a customer for their calling card number," said Smith, "We gave you the card, so why would we ask you for the number?"

Pacific Bell spokeswoman Linda Bonniksen said that several long-distance carriers that serve Orange County have restricted calls to some countries because of the high number of fraudulent calls made to them.

Telephone companies and consumers are not the only ones to suffer losses at the hands of call/sell operations.

Carla Rivera, the owner of a Santa Ana convenience store, said the large crowds that use the pay telephones next to her store each weekend drive away her customers.

"They take up the whole parking lot with their cars," Rivera complained. "My customers have nowhere to park."

Rivera, who has owned the store for six years, said she has often seen entire families gathered around the pay phones for hours and estimated that there are usually 10 to 20 people waiting to use the telephones.

One 23-year-old man from Santa Ana said he knew he was making calls on stolen card numbers, but said he could not afford to talk with his family in El Salvador if he paid the regular rate.

"If I called to El Salvador from my house, it would cost me $1.50 a minute. Here, I can talk for an hour or two and pay only $15," said the young man, who refused to give his name.

"I know it's wrong, but I do it anyway," he said as his face flushed with embarrassment. Glancing affectionately at his 3-year-old son beside him, the young father said: "I have not been home since I came to the U.S. seven years ago, and this is the only way my son can talk with his grandparents. Until I get in trouble, I'm going to keep doing this."

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