At locations across Utah and from coast to coast in the United States, consumers are getting stung by cryptic telephone, e-mail and pager messages.
The messages urge consumers to call a number for information about injured or sick relatives, prize opportunities or debt collectors.
The messages then tell recipients of the messages to call a long-distance number for additional information.
But in numerous cases, what appears to be a three-digit domestic area code is in reality the telephone number for an international pay-per-call line.
"The latest version we are seeing looks like someone is sending you an e-mail order verification," explained Francine Giani, director of the Utah Division of Consumer Protection. "The message tells you that the order will be shipped unless canceled."
"You call, spend a couple of minutes on hold, a couple more canceling the order and think nothing more of it. You won't realize you have been victimized until you receive your phone bill with some huge charge for international calling," pointed out the consumer protection agency director.
E-mail is becoming a preferred tool for scam artists because the method is cheap and easy to send out thousands or hundreds of thousands of messages.
"Always be suspicious of e-mail from people you don't know or never have sent a message to," advised Giani. "And be even more suspicious if it is coming to you as a blind copy."
Concerned or curious consumers who take the bait and place the return call are usually kept on the line, listening to long-winded messages, indicated the state agency's director.
As the clock ticks, the long distance charges build and scam artists are counting the rebates they will receive from foreign telephone companies.
For every minute unwary consumers remains on the line, the scam artist collects a bigger share of profits, continued Giani.
It is not always easy to distinguish an international dialing code from a North American area code, pointed out the consumer protection division director.
Some places at various locations outside the U.S. or Canada may be reached by dialing a telephone number beginning with three digits that resemble a regular area code.
Examples include areas in the Caribbean.
Many scam artists take advantage of the situation and of unsuspecting consumers by urging the potential victims to dial the telephone numbers without revealing that the calls will result in international long distance charges, continued the state division director.
Because countries establish individual telephone rates, there is no limit to the per-minute charge for making the calls, concluded Giani.