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Column: Edison warns SoCal customers not to fall for ‘fat-finger dialing scam’

An iPhone
Telemarketers purchase numbers that are nearly identical to those of well-known companies and organizations in hopes you’ll misdial and reach them instead.
(IStockphoto)

Glenn Egelko doesn’t have particularly puffy fingers. Nevertheless, he almost fell victim to what’s known as the “fat-finger dialing scam.”

As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, right?

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

As happens to all of us from time to time, the Ventura resident misdialed a single digit, inadvertently connecting with (800) 655-4556.

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And down the rabbit hole of phone trickery he went.

Egelko, 70, heard a recording that didn’t say he’d reached Edison but, then again, didn’t say he hadn’t. It simply dove right into saying he may be eligible for “a special promotion for select callers.”

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

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

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Egelko said he didn’t realize he’d dialed the wrong number until he checked his phone and discovered he’d erred by a single digit.

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

That, of course, is deliberate.

Egelko had inadvertently stumbled across one of the sneakier ploys in the telemarketing world: shady firms buying up hundreds or even thousands of phone numbers that are just slightly different from those of well-known entities such as utilities or big companies.

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The tactic relies on the consumer not realizing they’ve actually connected with a telemarketer and thinking the company they intended to reach is simply offering a cool perk for customers.

Before you know it, you could be hit with recurring monthly fees for a service you didn’t know you were signing up for.

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

“Nearly all major companies and organizations have been caught up in this,” she told me. “Even AARP’s service number has a fat-finger version.”

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I followed Egelko’s path down this particular rabbit hole. That $1.95 fee for a $100 “shopping certificate” — and the credit card number you provide as part of the transaction — will actually enroll you in a discount-coupon program costing about $50 a month.

Or you could get pulled into any of a number of other offers, such as a medical alert device that undoubtedly comes with its own fees, or a roadside assistance plan.

I called the not-quite-Edison number multiple times. Each call opened with a recording asking benign questions such as whether I’m older than 50.

Answering yes to any question leads to “Jessica,” who sounds friendly but is actually a more deceptive recording with deliberate gaps in the script that invite responses to her questions and create the illusion you’re conversing with a real person.

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Once Jessica has baited the hook, you finally make your way to an honest-to-goodness human, who will aggressively try to sell you various services. He or she will also quickly hang up as soon as you start asking too many questions, such as what the heck is going on.

There are a number of telemarketers playing this game, AARP says. In this case, the not-Edison number leads to a call center for Discount Savings Advantage.

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

I was given a different name each time I asked, although Discount Savings Advantage, and its variant Discount & Savings Advantage, came up most frequently.

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I found online complaints about this outfit and its marketing tactics going back years. But hours of rooting through public records turned up no paper trail of corporate ownership. Whoever they are, they’re very well hidden.

Is this illegal? Unfortunately, no.

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

She added that most telemarketers operating this scheme are very careful not to claim being the entity their misleading number would have you think they are. Instead, they bend over backward to prevent you from catching on.

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Consumer Reports warns that many fat-finger dialing scams involve toll-free numbers. The telemarketer will purchase the exact same number as a company, but instead of an 800 or 888 prefix, it will use 866 or some other legitimate alternative.

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

“Worse, you may find that you’ve been automatically enrolled in an ongoing subscription service you’ll be billed for every month.”

If that happens, said AARP’s Nofziger, good luck getting off the hook.

Although most telemarketers claim they make it easy to opt out from recurring fees, she said, many employing the fat-finger ruse will either ignore such requests or string you along for as many months as possible.

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

I shared the near-Edison number with Edison. Sally Jeun, a spokeswoman for the utility, acknowledged that customers could easily think they’d dialed the company.

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

I asked what message Edison has for customers who find themselves in the same position as Egelko.

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“Hang up,” Jeun replied.


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