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COLUMN ONE : Illegally Dialing for Dollars : Phone card pirates do a big street business in selling cheap calls to El Salvador, Nigeria and other lands. Tracking such fraud is tricky and often a low priority for police.

March 24, 1995|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The man by the pay phone is the button man, the call maker. And the people in line, waiting their turn, are his customers.

The button man takes their money and punches in the numbers they ask him to call. And in moments, a telephone is ringing in some distant land. He can work his trade because he owns a valuable tool: someone else's telephone credit card number.

This scene is common to many Southern California neighborhoods where there are new arrivals--people wanting to call home to El Salvador or Nigeria or Peru. The man with the number obliges them for a $10 or $20 bill.

In some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of calls have been charged to a single credit card in days. In a sting operation last April, Huntington Park police discovered that an estimated $12,000 worth of illegal calls were made within a few hours from street pay phones.

And the man with the number--the bottom end of the credit card fraud chain--almost always walks away with a pocketful of cash, with little risk of being caught.

No one has an exact figure on the cost to phone companies, but it is expected to be a hefty chunk of the estimated $4.3 billion in long-distance time that will be stolen this year nationwide.

Southern California, with its huge international community, is a prime spot for this brand of thievery.

"Los Angeles seems to be the center of the universe for these kinds of things," said James Bauer, the special agent in charge of the Los Angeles office of the Secret Service, the federal agency that investigates telephone fraud. It is also a problem in other cities with large numbers of immigrants, including New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

The pay phone has long been a magnet for crime, ranging from drug deals to cash box break-ins. But using it to commit fraud has evolved into a sophisticated, elusive scam. Besides button men, variations include legally installing phones in a storefront and passing the word on the street that cheap phone time is available using stolen card numbers. Or an empty storefront is leased, a phone company is hired to install jacks, calls are billed to a long-distance carrier and the site is abandoned before bills come due.

Tracking down phone fraud suspects is difficult. It often is a low priority for police who are busy with more pressing business. Stealing phone time, after all, pales next to the violence they face on the streets.

Phone crimes also are low on the public sympathy scale: owners of stolen card numbers are not charged for illegal billings. So the victim is seen as the rich telephone companies. Law enforcement officials say cases can be difficult to prosecute because juries must be made to understand the complicated process of how money is lost and how phone companies must pay long-distance carriers for time used.

And with evolving technology and techniques, "it seems like the telephone thieves are always one step ahead of the telephone companies," said John Haugh, a Portland, Ore., security expert.

*

One brilliant Sunday morning, Huntington Park Police Detective Shawn Moore shifted his black Ford Mustang into gear and began cruising down Pacific Boulevard. Moore was beginning to flag. He had spent much of the night investigating the beating death of a victim in a petty robbery.

Moore is one of the officers who worked with LDDS Metromedia Communications, a Westlake Village telephone company, to make the street bust last year in which 20 people were arrested. He says there has not been another sting since then, mostly because of more serious crimes in this working-class suburb.

Close to noon, lines began to form at the phones across the street from a hamburger stand on Pacific. First, two men, then another, then two more men and a woman gathered, drawn by the lure of a cheap call home. They had heard--either by word of mouth or through pamphlets passed out on the street--that this was the place to make their calls that day.

A heavy-set man in a brightly colored shirt dialed the phone, then handed the receiver to the man next to him. Less than 10 yards away, the small but steadily growing clump of people stood in the shade. When the caller hung up, another walked over and took his place.

"It looks more like a drug transfer, doesn't it?" said Moore, who watched from a nearby shopping center parking lot. "He'll call them over and then make the next phone call. They'll be on the phones for hours now. Sometimes, it just gets ridiculous, like on Mother's Day. Then the number of people making calls is phenomenal."

Those who make the calls cite a variety of reasons, most involving expediency and cost. One man who said he otherwise was law-abiding could not resist the temptation to call El Salvador last year for $10.

"It was on a Sunday and I had to call home and I didn't have much money," said the man, who asked not to be identified. "So I saw these guys and they said the call would cost $10, so I did it. I talked for half an hour."

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