The rise of VoIP has made it easier for calls to hop through multiple countries—and this kind of fraud has become more prevalent in recent years. Crossing all these international borders also makes this fraud extremely difficult to prosecute. “It’s always a challenge to get law enforcement agencies to assist with investigations. Cooperation between three or four countries is a big drain on resources,” says Colin Yates, who consults on fraud management for telecommunications companies.
Defrauding people who call wrong numbers is, relatively speaking, pretty small scale fraud. But there are also organized crime rings that actively seek out victims for similar scams, all of which fall under the umbrella of international revenue share fraud (IRSF).
In Spain, police in 2014 cracked a crime ring that was stealing cellphones from tourists. The crime ring wasn’t interested in reselling the actual phone hardware so much as exploiting the SIM cards. By using all the phones to call international premium numbers, similar to 900 numbers in the U.S. that charge extra, they were making hundreds of thousands of dollars. Elsewhere—Pakistan and the Philippines being two common locations—organized crime rings have hacked into phone systems to get those phones to constantly dial either international premium numbers or high-rate countries like Cuba, Latvia, or Somalia .
(When I called Yates in New Zealand, by the way, he apologized for missing my first call and not calling back immediately. My number had shown up without a U.S. country code, so he didn’t recognize the number and suspected it was a case of fraud. This is the M.O. of another common scam called Wangiri, Japanese for “one and cut.” Fraudsters use software to automatically dial hundreds of numbers and hang up after one ring. When victims call back, they’re connected to an expensive international number.)
Stamping out international revenue share fraud is a collective action problem. “The only way to prevent IRFS fraud is to stop the money. If everyone agrees, if no one pays for IRFS, that disrupts it,” says Yates. That would mean, for example, the second-to-last carrier would refuse to pay the last carrier that routed my call to the audiobooks and the third-to-last would refuse to pay the second-to-last, and so on, all the way back up the chain to my phone company. But when has it been easy to get so many companies to do the same thing? It costs money to investigate fraud cases too, and some companies won’t think it’s worth the trade off. “Some operators take a very positive approach toward fraud management. Others see it as cost of business and don’t put a lot of resources or systems in to manage it,” says Yates.
After this episode, my workplace’s phone company said it would change the carrier it used to reach Cuba. I tried the number again this week: “El numero que usted solicita, no esta asignada a una morada.” Then in English: “The number you are calling has not been subscribed.” And the call ended, like it should have.
I called again, just to be sure. It rang for a while, the error messages played, and then: “The whole farm was deeply divided on the subject of the windmill.”