To learn more about the area of Phone-Card fraud we contacted Kevin Coffey, a 14 year veteran of one of the nations largest police forces. He had initiated his department's tourist-crime detail and has investigated thousands of crimes committed against travelers. What follows are some of his comments and suggestions for travelers who are concerned about phone-card and other forms of electronic fraud.
"It has been estimated that over 90% of phone card theft occurs at airports, hotels and train stations. I have personally arrested some of the thousands of criminals who engage in this activity, particularly those using the system known as shoulder surfing."
How can a traveler protect their pin when using a public phone?
"You must always remain aware when you are about to use your pin number. A common practice engaged in by criminals is to stand on a mezzanine and observe the bank of phones through binoculars. (This is still shoulder surfing, peering over an unsuspecting shoulder, it just happens at a distance). Be aware of these vantage points and protect yourself from them.
Phone card fraud is very seldom prosecuted with the diligence it should be, police departments must concentrate on violent crime. It is frustrating to note that most of this crime is punished as a minor offense so there is little incentive for the criminal to abstain from this lucrative pastime."
Could prepaid calling cards be a solution?
"These cards certainly eliminate the risk of large scale phone-fraud but are usually too expensive for the consumer to use on a regular basis. Additionally, most business travelers are already burdened with too many cards and pre-paid phone cards would simply add to the collection." After listening to Mr. Coffey's useful comments, we went on to investigate the subject further.
Is something being done by the phone companies to protect the traveler?
The phone companies have eliminated the old procedure of canceling a card outright, which used to immediately render a cardholder incommunicado. Today they invalidate only the International calling ability of a stolen number, leaving its local function intact. This is definitely a step in the right direction.
Most recent methods of combating phone-card fraud are based on high Tech solutions such as computer scanning of abnormal calling patterns and voice printing; where the customer must enter a vocal password along with their pin number. When either of the above tests detect a discrepency, the call is routed to a live operator whose presence usually causes the criminal to hang up and depart. As our electronic communications become more sophisticated, the opportunity for fraud will be decreased but history has shown that some enterprising outlaw will always take up the challenge.
What can I do to protect myself?
Phone companies will tell you that the best offense is still a good defense. Be sure to observe those around you before you call and don't be shy about covering the keypad, not doing so can be as foolish as not locking your car. Be aware of the opportunity afforded by those mezzanines - some criminals use video cameras with zoom lenses to record your numbers from a distance as you type them in. Memorize your pin so you don't have to display your card openly. Avoid saying your number out loud and stay away from open areas particularly those with crowded banks of phones. These days, even having your international calling ability interrupted for a brief period can be a debilitating experience and an ounce of precaution will save a pound of annoyance.