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If 809 Code Sounds Foreign to You, That's Because It Is

November 16, 2000|ELIZABETH DOUGLASS | elizabeth.douglass@latimes.com

Telephone scams are about as old as the telephone itself, and there are nearly as many varieties. The most effective among them reemerge from time to time, and such is the case with the so-called 809 trick.

In recent weeks, a stream of e-mails have warned recipients of the dangers of calling unfamiliar phone numbers that start with the 809 area code, whether to return a voicemail, pager or e-mail message.

Our advice: Heed the warning. While the number of actual incidents is not documented, it is indeed possible to trigger a huge phone bill by calling an 809 phone number.

There are several permutations of this scam, which has been around at least since 1996. In most cases, people receive a message--via voicemail, pager, postcard, e-mail or fax--that is of some urgency, imploring them to call the provided phone number to settle an account, claim a valuable prize or get information about a family member who is ill, dead or in trouble.

In other iterations, businesses receive faxes requesting product or other information be faxed back to the indicated phone number. In each case, the listed phone number begins with the 809 area code.

Here's the problem: The 809 area code, while taking the form of a traditional U.S. code, is actually assigned to the Dominican Republic. It is one of 15 Caribbean nations that can be called from the United States without having to first dial extra digits.

Because few people know that, they have no idea that dialing an 809 phone number will trigger charges at international calling rates. The real zinger is that the Dominican Republic permits companies to use the 809 phone numbers for "pay-per-call" services, which operate as "900" phone numbers do in this country.

In the United States, 900-number companies are generally required to inform callers that they have dialed a pay-per-call number. They must also disclose the cost and give the caller an opportunity to hang up before charges begin. Those rules don't apply to pay-per-call services outside the United States--so the trick might actually be legal.

In previous versions of the 809 trick, customers reported being held on the phone by a series of recordings, and then being billed for the call at $25 per minute.

Some folks advise people to ignore messages from unfamiliar area codes, but that's probably not a good idea given the dozens of new area codes that pop up nationwide each year.

If in doubt about an area code, call your local phone company or check the reference pages of your white pages phone book. There also are some excellent area code reference sites. Two of the best: http://www.lincmad.com and http://www.areacode-info.com.

Times staff writer Elizabeth Douglass covers telecommunications.

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