Con artists posing as phone company workers racked up $4,000 in calls to China, Yemen and other exotic locales at the expense of an uncharacteristically gullible business: the Placentia Police Department.
The scammers called the department 28 times during a 12-hour period beginning Wednesday evening, telling police dispatchers that they had just repaired a cut phone line and needed to test the line to make sure it was working. In every case, the dispatchers connected them to an outside line, which was used to make the international calls, police said.
The department stopped accepting the calls only after AT&T alerted them to the scam Thursday morning.
Investigators believe that the con artists were dialing from a pay phone, where they had lined up immigrants who paid cash to make the long-distance calls.
Experts have nicknamed the scam "social engineering" and said it's an increasingly common crime perpetrated against trusting businesses with a main switchboard. They said it costs phone companies and private businesses millions of dollars a year.
Chagrined Placentia police officials said they were calling other agencies--including the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department--that they believe were also hit by the scam.
"We felt pretty stupid," police spokesman Matt Reynolds said. "They fooled us."
Placentia dispatcher Katie Holtsclaw, who took about 20 calls from a single scammer, said the caller sounded legitimate.
The caller explained the repeated requests for outside lines by saying "we're still working on it," "I don't have it yet," and "OK, I messed up that time," according to tapes of the conversations.
"I didn't suspect anything," Holtsclaw added. "We frequently have the phone company test our lines. . . . He gave all the right information the phone repair people usually give."
She said the incident left her feeling taken.
"The public never ceases to amaze me," she said. "If there's a way to get something free, they will do it."
Investigators have no suspects in the case. Scam artists have pulled off similar crimes elsewhere, including Omaha, San Diego and Arizona. But the victims are usually businesses, not public agencies.
AT&T officials said repair workers fix broken lines from either phone company offices or at the site. Therefore, switchboard operators should not transfer anyone claiming to work for a phone company to an outside line.
Reynolds suspects that the scam artists set up business at a pay phone booth in front of a apartment complex or immigration office.
"They collect cash from them. The person making the call is probably not aware of the scam," he said. "The suspects are just telling them, 'Give me $30. When you have the dial tone, you make the call.' "
The calls lasted anywhere from one hour to six hours.
"We don't know what kind of business they were conducting," Police Det. Corrine Loomis said. "They must be getting the whole [town] and passing the phone around."
AT&T noticed the unusual calling volume early Thursday morning and alerted the department. The phone company has agreed to cover the $4,000 in calls, Loomis said.
Still, police said one of the scam artists called back Thursday evening seeking another outside line.
"We told him, 'We're on to you buddy,' " Reynolds added.