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Column: Edison warns SoCal customers not to fall for ‘big finger dial scam’

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Glenn Egelko doesn’t have particularly swollen fingers. Nevertheless, he almost fell victim to what is known as a “big finger dialing scam.”

Like we don’t have a thing to worry about, right?

Egelko recently had questions about his Southern California Edison utility bill. He looked at his last statement and found the customer service number: (800) 655-4555.

As happens to all of us from time to time, the Ventura resident incorrectly dialed a single digit, inadvertently dialing into (800) 655-4556.

And into the rabbit hole of telephone deception, he’s gone.

Egelko, 70, heard a recording that did not say he had reached Edison but, again, he did not say he did not. It just bent over saying he might be eligible for a “special promotion for certain callers”.

This special promotion was a $ 100 “certificate of purchase” purportedly good for purchases at Walmart, Target and other retailers. All Egelko had to do was pay a fee of $ 1.95 with his credit card.

“As soon as they said they wanted my credit card number,” he told me, “I hung up.”

Egelko said he did not realize he had dialed the wrong number until he checked his phone and found out that he had entered the wrong single digit.

“They don’t tell you who you reached, so how would you know?” He asked.

This, of course, is on purpose.

Egelko had inadvertently stumbled upon one of the most devious schemes in the world of telemarketing: shady businesses buying up hundreds, if not thousands of phone numbers that are just slightly different from those of well-known entities such as utilities. or large companies.

The tactic is that the consumer does not realize that he has actually been connected with a telemarketer and thinks that the business he intended to reach is simply offering a valuable benefit to the customers.

Before you know it, you might be facing a recurring monthly fee for a service you didn’t know you were signing up for.

“This is a very sophisticated scam,” said Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for AARP’s Fraud Watch Network.

“Almost every big business and organization has been caught in this situation,” she told me. “Even AARP’s service tag has a big-fingered version.”

I followed Egelko’s path through this particular burrow. That $ 1.95 fee for a $ 100 “certificate of purchase” – and the credit card number you provide as part of the transaction – will actually sign you up for a coupon program that costs around $ 50. $ per month.

Or you could be drawn into one of the many other offerings, like a medical alert device that no doubt comes with its own cost or a roadside assistance plan.

I called the not quite Edison number several times. Each call opened with a recording asking benign questions, for example if I am over 50.

Answering yes to any question leads to “Jessica,” which sounds friendly but is actually a more misleading recording with deliberate gaps in the script that invite answering her questions and create the illusion that you are conversing with a woman. real person.

Once Jessica has baited the hook, you finally make your way to a good-natured honest human, who will aggressively attempt to sell you various services. He or she also hangs up quickly as soon as you start asking too many questions, such as what’s going on.

There are a number of telemarketers who play this game, AARP says. In this case, the non-Edison number leads to a call center for Discount Savings Advantage.

Or maybe it’s managed by Discount & Savings Advantage. Or maybe Premier Rewards. Or maybe American Shopping Benefits.

I was given a different name each time I asked for it, although Discount Savings Advantage and its Discount & Savings Advantage variant came more often.

I found online complaints about this outfit and its marketing tactics going back years. But hours of searches of public registers have revealed no written record of company ownership. Whoever they are, they are very well hidden.

Is it illegal? Unfortunately no.

“As long as they don’t misrepresent themselves, they have the right to buy specific phone numbers,” Nofziger said.

She added that most telemarketers who run this program are very careful not to pretend to be the entity their deceptive number would make you think they are. Instead, they lean back to prevent you from understanding.

Consumer Reports warns that many big-fingered dial-up scams involve toll-free numbers. The telemarketer will buy the exact same number as a business, but instead of an 800 or 888 prefix, they will use 866 or some other legitimate alternative.

If you provide your credit card number, the organization said, “The only thing you will receive is an additional charge on your credit card, your bank account (if you use a debit card) or your phone bill.”

“Worse yet, you may find that you have been automatically enrolled in an ongoing subscription service that will be billed to you each month.”

If that happens, said AARP’s Nofziger, good luck with you.

While most telemarketers say they make it easy to turn off recurring charges, she said, many who use the big-fingered trick will either ignore those requests or chain you for as many months as possible.

Don’t hesitate to contact your credit card issuer and suspend any questionable payments, Nofziger advised.

I shared Edison’s nearby number with Edison. Sally Jeun, a spokesperson for the utility, admitted that customers could easily think they had called the company.

“We will never ask you for your credit card number over the phone,” she told me.

I asked what message Edison has for clients who are in the same position as Egelko.

“Hang up,” replied Jeun.

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