A curious new mobile phone scam


Last week I was contacted by the BBC's consumer affairs programme "You And Yours" for my expert opinion on a new type of mobile phone scam.

Several people had contacted the show to say that they had missed calls from the number "08454290015" or "08439800142" - despite not answering the call, nor dialling it themselves, they'd been charged significant sums of money for receiving the call.

In once case, a couple had been charged over £300 for a twelve-hour call!

I did some digging on this. While it is hard to gather solid evidence without access to billing systems, I think I can see what is happening. Sadly, at the moment, there is no way to prevent this scam.

Firstly, I went to the regulator. According to Ofcom's data, the telephone number range is allocated to Red Telecom Solutions Ltd. They're a reseller of telco services - in this case, I think they are blameless. They've just rented the number to the scammers - and it would take a court order or Ofcom investigation to get those details.

Normally, dialling an 0845 number from a mobile is expensive, but answering it shouldn't cost anything.

Based on other complaints I've seen, it looks like people are being stung by a "reverse charges scam". On a normal reverse / collect call, the person answering the phone is asked to press a number on their keypad to accept the charges. In this case, customers are played a message like "You've won an iPad! Press 2 to find out more!" they're then played a longer message while the reverse charges rack up.

Finally, in the case of the couple who supposedly made a 12 hour call (without noticing and without the phone's battery dying) - the only explanation I can come up with is that someone has submitted mistaken or fraudulent call records to the mobile operators.

I spoke to the You and Yours team about this on Monday (17 minutes in):

As I was in the BBC Oxford studios for the interview, the local radio team asked if I could pop on the Nick Piercey afternoon show - where I said more-or-less the same thing.

How To Prevent This

Sadly, as a consumer, there's not much you can do to prevent this sort of scam. It is up to mobile phone companies and the regulator to crack down on it.

That said, here are my top-tips to reduce the likelihood of falling prey to these sorts of scams.

  • Don't answer phone calls from numbers you don't recognise. That's not always practical, I grant you.
  • If you do answer a call and it asks you to press a number on your keypad, just hang up.
  • Don't dial back missed calls unless you recognise the number.
  • Use the PhonePayPlus Number Checker to see how much the call will cost you.
  • Register your mobile with the Telephone Preference Service. This will prevent reputable companies from phoning you with marketing drivel. Doesn't stop the disreputable ones though.
  • Run anti-virus on your phone to make sure that you don't have any malicious apps on there which could dial phone numbers without your knowledge.
  • Use an ad-blocker. Some adverts can trick your phone into dialling premium rate numbers. Typically they require the user to manually hit the dial button, so such scams aren't too successful.
  • If you're really worried, consider switching to a pre-pay / PAYG service. You won't be able to lose more money than you currently have in your account.
  • You can see if your phone has been set to divert calls to a premium rate number. Most phones will have a menu in the dialer for this. If you can't find it, dial *#21# to see if you have diverts set up.
  • It is possible to check whether your voicemail has been redirected to a premium rate number. Again, check your phone's menus or dial *#61# and *#62# and *#67#. Check with your mobile operator to make sure the details are correct.
  • Finally, always check your bills! If there's something suspicious on there, contact your operator straight away. If they refuse to help, complain to Ofcom.

At the moment, most UK operators won't place a cap on how much of a bill you can rack up. My personal opinion is that needs to change. A cap exists for roaming charges and stolen phones, so it is technically feasible.

In the mean time, stay sceptical and keep checking your bills!

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