ScamBusters, the scourge of Internet schemes, is itself being scammed.
Fax machines and e-mail in-boxes are getting "urgent" messages claiming that ScamBusters is warning of a "major scam" spreading around the Internet involving surfers who have lost as much as $26,000 returning calls to 809 area code numbers.
"Don't ever dial area code 809," the e-mail says. "This is a very important issue of ScamBusters because it alerts you to a scam that is spreading extremely quickly."
It's not quite so, says Audri Lanford, co-editor of ScamBusters, a leading Internet site tracking cyberspace fraud schemes. ScamBusters exposed long-distance fraud schemes five years ago but isn't responsible for the latest e-mail warning.
"They've taken something that's a real scam, and turned it into a hoax and a scam," Lanford said. "We're not very happy about it."
The last time she checked, Lanford said the ScamBuster site received more than 800 e-mails about the hoax e-mail, which is spread by Internet chain-letters along with warning of new computer viruses.
Lanford suspects her nonprofit company - which tracks new scams on the Internet and posts reports on how they work - was deliberately chosen. "It certainly wasn't innocent," she said.
As with most hoaxes, there's an element of truth involved. The Federal Trade Commission says it has received complaints from people who returned messages to call area codes 264, 268, 242, 246, 441, 284, 245, 767, 473, 876, 664, 869 and 809. Although the phone company charges international rates of up to $25 a minute for calls to these numbers, they are dialed from the United States without the 011 prefix for calls to Europe or Asia so consumers may not be aware they're calling an overseas number.
The scam involves keeping people who return calls to those numbers on line to roll up charges by either asking them to wait on hold, or keeping them engaged by talking. The minutes that tick by are then charged to the phone bill of the person who calls.
The hoax e-mail claims there have been cases of people charged $2,425 a minute for making the calls. But that would entail someone being kept on hold for more than three hours after calling long distance.
Brianna Gowring, a spokeswoman for Verizon, said dial-around fraud is an old scam, but one that actually is lessening as new rate schedules reduce the cost of international calls, and Caribbean countries deregulate their phone monopolies. The lesser rates take the economic incentive out of the scam.
"Periodically, we do hear complaints," she said, recalling recent protests of people responding to job want ads that had 809 area codes.
Gowring said there's also a trend of telemarketing companies moving to the Caribbean, and of Internet porn sites moving overseas to avoid federal requirements for adult sex sites to verify their users are over 18.
Lanford said the lesson from the e-mail hoax is not to trust the Internet.
"The Internet is the hoax creator's dream," she said. "You can be anonymous, and it's easy to be malicious."
www.ftc.gov go to the consumer page