We've all done it – misdialed a phone number. Sometimes you get connected to the wrong person or company. Sometimes the number is not in service. No big deal either way.
But misdial a toll-free number and you could wind up connected to a con artist who wants to sneak a sizeable charge on to your phone bill. It's called "fat-finger dialing" and it's a fairly common phone scam.
"The idea is to charge the consumer who has misdialed for something they did not want and to put that charge on their phone bill with the hope that they won't notice," says Tracy Thomas, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission.
Anyone can buy a toll-free number for devious purposes. For years, consumer groups and federal regulators have warned about fat-finger dialing schemes involving alternative long-distance services.
Kristin Alexander of Seattle knows how easy it is to get snagged by a fat-finger scammer. On a recent call to a toll-free number, she misdialed on her cell phone by one digit.
"I got this weird message that said I needed to push the star key on my phone and it would send me a text message and there might be charges," Alexander said. "It sounded really strange, so I hung up and redialed. And sure enough, it turned out I had misdialed."
Alexander works for the Washington State Attorney General's office, so she knew to be suspicious. But she worries about others who might follow the recorded instructions and get an unexpected charge on their phone bill.
I made my own call to that number Alexander had accidentally dialed and I got the same recording about a text message. Then I called again on a landline, and got this strange message:
"For a charge of $5.49, please have a pen ready to write down our phone number. You can hang up and dial 10-15-15-8000. That number again is 10-15-15-8000 to speak to our live operators. The number you have dialed has a new national directory assistance service. Please dial 10-15-15-8000. That number again is 10-15-15-8000 for more information on the number you have dialed and be connected to a new national directory assistance service brought to you by Calling 10. Rates exclude an administrative recovery fee. The charge on your phone bill may appear as a call to Directory Assistance to Nevada."
But there's more. Two days after this happened to her, Alexander was contacted by Beth McUne, a case worker in the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. McUne's client had tried to check the balance on his Electronic Benefits Transfer Card (the modern version of food stamps). He incorrectly dialed the toll-free number on the back of the card – again by just one digit – and got another crazy message.
"It told him that he needed to press Y to get a text message because there was new information on the account," McUne says. "He did that and he got a text message telling him that for $9.99 he could check the account for up to 20 times a month."
That's total nonsense. Washington state does not charge people to check the benefits in their accounts. This is a scam.
And get this. I took the toll-free number for the Federal Trade Commission's National Do Not Call Registry and deliberately dialed one wrong digit. Guess what I heard? It was that familiar message telling me to call 10-15-15-8000 for more information.
The company behind 10-15-15-8000
Public records indicated that number belongs to Telseven LLC, a communications company in Ponte Verde Beach, Fla. It runs a nationwide directory assistance service for toll-free numbers. The company also does business as Calling 10 LLC.
In December, the California Public Utilities Commission opened an investigation into Telseven and its affiliated companies.
In its legal papers, the PUC says it was prompted to take this action because of "the large number of complaints lodged" against the companies. "Consumers report finding charges on their bill, typically totaling over $7, for a Directory Assistance service that they universally deny authorizing or using."
The PUC staff says it believes tens of thousands of Californians complained to their phone companies when they found charges from Telseven on their bill. Telseven denies the allegations.
The Utility Commission staff says Telseven controls about one million "defunct" toll-free numbers. They call the company's business model "inherently deceptive" because it capitalizes on people who mistakenly dial toll-free numbers, usually by just one digit.
The Florida Attorney General's Office is also looking into Telseven because numerous consumers have complained they did not authorize the company's charges on their phone bills.
The investigation was opened on allegations concerning unauthorized charges for Telseven's purported directory-assistance services that were allegedly not promptly disclosed to consumers who accidentally reached the company when trying to telephone other companies, says Shannon Knowles in the AG's communications office.
Knowles says the company is cooperating with the investigation.
Telseven says it is a reputable business that provides a "public service." Spokesman John Finotti insists the company is not doing anything wrong, and he is "confident they will resolve all the issues" in both California and Florida.
In its legal response to the Public Utilities Commission in California, Telseven says there is no proof users reach its numbers because they misdialed. And it insists people are told the price before they decide whether to use their directory assistance service.
Telseven says about 95 percent of the people who call a toll-free number and get their message hang up and do not dial the 10-15-15-8000 number. Finotti says this shows that people who do call the number "are making an informed choice to use the service and incur the requisite charge."
Telseven says it has a liberal, no-questions-asked refund policy for anyone who inquires about a charge for its service.
How to fight back?
Be careful when you dial a toll-free number. Listen carefully to the message you get when connected. If in doubt, hang up and redial. You can verify the number for free through various phone directory websites.
If you find a surprise charge on your phone bill (and you should be checking your monthly statement for questionable charges), contact your phone company. If they can't help, file complaints with your state's Public Utilities Commission and Attorney General or Consumer Protection Office. You should also file complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.
If there are bad actors out there, we want them stopped.