I Dialed a Wrong Number and Stumbled Into International Phone Fraud

It started when I was trying to call Cuba.

Mobile phones at a construction site
Thomas Peter / Reuters

A few weeks ago, I was trying to call Cuba. I got an error message—which, okay, international telephone codes are long and my fingers are clumsy—but the phone oddly started dialing again before I could hang up. A voice answered. It had a British accent and it was reading: “...the moon was shining brightly. The Martians had taken away the excavating-machine…”

Apparently, I had somehow called into an audiobook of The War of the Worlds. Suspicious of my clumsy fingers, I double-checked the number. It was correct (weird), but I tried the number again, figuring that at worst, I’d learn what happened after the Martians took away the excavating machine. This time, I got the initial error message and the call disconnected. No Martians.

Now I was really intrigued. Why would doing the same thing yield  two different results? I called again. A British voice answered, “And yet the animals never gave up hope. More, they never lost, even for an instant, their sense of honor and privilege in being members of Animal Farm.”

Really? Animal Farm? Isn’t reading from George Orwell’s allegory of Stalinism a little too on the nose for Cuba? To confirm this surreal game of telephone I’d found myself in, I googled the quote to find it indeed, in chapter 10 of Animal Farm, posted online in full on marxists.org.

So that was my first experience with telecommunications fraud when calling Cuba.

* * *

Cuba is one of the most expensive countries to call from the U.S. It’s partly because of the embargo’s legacy—which makes directly connecting the U.S. and Cuba phone lines difficult—and partly because of Cuba’s limited and outdated telecommunications infrastructure. It costs almost a dollar a minute to call Cuba from the U.S.

To get around this tightly restricted market, a great many fraudulent and ingenious ways of making money have sprung up around calling to Cuba. Global capitalism abhors a vacuum.  And so, of calls from North America and Europe, the ones to Cuba are the most likely to be fraudulent in some way, according to the Communications Fraud Control Association’s 2015 global survey. And telecommunications fraud is no small thing. In all, fraud costs the telecommunications industry an estimated $38.1 billion a year.

Ironically, the people actually making money off this fraud may not even be in Cuba. Here’s how the fraud in my War of the Worlds / Animal Farm case probably worked, according to industry fraud investigators I spoke to.  I was calling with VoIP, or voice over IP, meaning my phone call was routed through the internet infrastructure rather than through traditional phone lines. VoIP is cheaper because it automatically searches for the cheapest route from point A (in my case, Washington, D.C.) to point B (Havana, Cuba). Like cheap airfare that requires many layovers, the cheapest way to connect with Havana can pass through many countries. It might go across the Atlantic to Europe and back. It might make half a dozen or more hops through different carriers.

Somewhere along the way, I encountered a less than scrupulous carrier. Big telecom companies are carriers, but dozens of smaller ones all over the world sometimes offer cheaper rates through certain countries. It turned out that the Cuban number I called was indeed invalid—it came from an outdated webpage, I’ve since found—and some carrier was diverting or allowing the diversion  of calls that went to invalid Cuban numbers to an audiobook some percentage of the time. (That’s why I sometimes got the recording and sometimes the call just ended after an error message. I know this because I’ve now dialed that same number at least 10 times.)

The recordings can be random. “We get everything from fake rings, heavy breathing, adult entertainment, lottery reading, psychic readings, music—so random recordings,” said one veteran industry fraud analyst. The goal is just to get people to stay on the phone as long as possible. Calling Cuba and getting an audiobook of Animal Farm (the free public domain version) was probably just a weirdly resonant coincidence.

My phone call never actually made it to Cuba. The fraudsters make money because the last carrier simply pretends that it connected to Cuba when it actually connected me to the audiobook recording. So it charges Cuban rates to the previous carrier, which charges the preceding carrier, which charges the preceding carrier, and the costs flow upstream to my telecom carrier. The fraudsters siphoning money from the telecommunications system could be anywhere in the world.

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.”