In early October 1996, someone sent out spam that tricked people into calling an 809 (Dominican Republic) phone number, and the callers were likely billed about $.50/minute . About a week later, an organization called ScamBusters got a hold of this information, and reported (incorrectly) that it could cost up to $25/minute and $100+ total. People passed this information on through chain letters, where $25 and $100 got turned into $2,425 and $24,100 (due to encoding and human error).
Everyone from the BBB to Attorneys General got duped, thinking something barely worthy of the term ‘scam’ was a huge deal. There is no evidence of anyone ever having complained about their phone bill from this! The hoax, on the other hand, causes huge problems.
Who’s calling me from 809 Area Code? Unraveling the Hoax
Despite hundreds of newspaper articles, warnings by police, sheriffs, district attorneys, attorneys general, colleges and universities, there is one lynchpin that keeps this whole thing alive: that it might have cost $25/minute to call these numbers (which then snowballs into the higher figures). The prospect of getting charged $25/minute is scary (and worthy of informing others of); getting charged $.25/minute is not. If that $25/minute can be disproven, the whole thing can be shown to be a hoax, since all the warnings mention amounts of money that are based on the $25/minute rate.
The truth is that there is just one source for that $25/minute amount: The original ScamBusters article, which said “apparently be charged $25 per-minute.” Their alert went out on 07 Oct 1996, 5 days after the scam started, so nobody had gotten a phone bill yet. Their alert was based on reports from 2 people, and quoted no sources for any of their information. Five days later, they issued a new alert, mentioning “reportedly up to $25 per minute.” So their story changed from a flat rate per call to a variable rate.
On 21 Nov 1996 (6 weeks after the scam started), Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune said that the $25 figure was a ‘wild error’, and that you are billed standard international rates. The truth is that it cost people about $.50/minute to make the call back in 1996. On 12 Jan 1997, an intelligent Usenet poster claims that he for 6 months requested that anyone with proof of 809 calls cost more than the normal international rate to let him know; nobody responded. We also sent an E-mail to the one of the authors of the original ScamBusters article, asking if he had any evidence that anyone ever paid more than the standard international rate. No response. A reputable website has requested evidence of surchages for 8 years, with no takers.
So it seems very clear that the $25/minute that all the hoaxes are based on was completely made-up, most likely to try to get people to hype the ScamBusters article. A good job they did!
The 809 Area Code scams are rare today
First, there’s the fact that there are very, very few reports of anyone having ever fallen for this scam (and none include a dollar amount). “Ask Andy” says that he helped investigate this in 1998, and he is not aware of any such scam since then (as of the report, dated 13 Mar 2009). We have poured over lots of information about the 809 scam/hoax, and we have seen no evidence that anyone who called the 809 number ever paid $25/minute, or paid over $100/call, or complained about the cost they paid, or paid any surcharges, or anything other than the standard rate. If you find any such evidence, please let us know, and we will update this page! What this really means is that anyone using terms like ‘exorbinant rates’, ‘high phone bill’, ‘outrageous’, ‘surcharge’, ‘pay-per-call’, etc. are perpetrating scarelore. Note that there are people who have called 809 numbers and complained about the rates — but those have nothing to do with this scam (e.g. ‘Mystery Shopper’ ads where people usually knew they were paying an international rate, and getting information they were willing to pay for).
As it stands, the truth behind the ‘809 scam’ is barely worthy of the term ‘scam’. Yes, someone conned people into calling an 809 number. But the people doing so all knew that it was going to cost them money. They just didn’t know whether it would be about $.15/minute for a standard long-distance call or $.50/minute for an international call. There are almost no reports of people having fallen for this, because people didn’t even bother reporting the $5 or so they lost, because they knew they were paying it when they made the call. Finally, given the huge cost of the 809 hoax, any mentions of the small truth of the scam help perpetuate the hoax.
Reporting the 809 Scam!
Let’s say that you want to report about the scam behind the hoax. You feel that your citizens/constituents/students/whatever need to know. That’s OK. While we feel that it isn’t worthy of reporting, you may. However, please at least consider these guidelines if you do report it:
- Do NOT just mention area code 809. Mention all area codes that could result in international long distance rates.
- Do NOT mention any specific information without backing it up. e.g. do not say ‘Calls can cost as much as $25/minute’.
- Do NOT mention vague information that cannot be backed up (‘This is spreading rapidly’, ‘Lots of people have been victims’, ‘high phone bill’, etc.).
- Do NOT imply that this is ‘pay-per-call’ or that extra charges, surcharges, or fees apply beyond long distance rates.
- DO make it clear that people falling for the scam will just pay standard international rates of about $.25/minute.
- DO make it clear that there is absolutely no reason not to call people or businesses you know in any country (assuming you know what the standard rate is)
- DO distinguish between the scam in the chain letters (where someone cons you into calling an 809 number, and there is no benefit to the call) from the ‘quasi-legitimate’ scams such as Mystery Shopping ads that would appear in newspapers, where people actually did get information they wanted (but complained for various reasons). They are very different scams.
809 Scam Evidence
There is no known evidence that anyone falling for the ‘809 scam’ ever complained about their phone bill, or paid more than standard international rates. The cost to call the 809 area code at the time of the scam was about $.50/minute. To rack up a $100 phone bill, that would take about 200 minutes. Would anyone spend over 3 hours on the phone to someone as a result of this scam? Of course, there is also no evidence suggesting that anyone paid $25/minute or $100/call.
809 Area Code Calls Are not pay-per-call
The layman’s definition of pay-per-call is simple: any phone call where you are charged a flat rate, regardless of the length of the call. Clearly, if there is just a per-minute charge, it does not meet the layman’s definition of pay-per-call. And there is no evidence suggesting that people have been charged per call for 809 numbers. It took quite a bit of research, but we found that there is a legal definition. 47 USC 228(i) of the United States legal code defines it. The 809 numbers definitely do not meet the legal criteria for ‘pay-per-call’. First, the ‘809 scam’ calls do not meet (1)(A) (since it is a scam), nor (1)(b) (there are no per-call charges, or charges above the charge for the transmission of the call), nor (1)(C) (809 is not an area code designated for such calls).