How To Foil Phone Card Fraud

As a frequent flyer, I have become sensitized to the dangers of calling-card fraud. I

have scrupulously followed the advice of other passengers who had their numbers ripped off and used to rack up unauthorized calls. Yet I still got burned on a recent trip to New York.

While my card provider, AT&T, didn't make me pay for the $1,225 in calls charged to my purloined number, I did lose time and money making phone calls and sending faxes to let AT&T and Visa (to which my calls are billed) know which calls weren't mine.

I also learned that I and other phone customers indirectly pay for $2 billion in annual fraud as AT&T, MCI Communications, and other companies pass losses on. So I checked into what else I might do to foil the crooks. As far as I can remember, I had minded all the basic precautions, such as blocking the phone keypad when dialing, but somebody "clocked" my number anyway. "They are pretty clever," says Richard Petillo, director of AT&T corporate security. "They won't look like what you'd expect. They might even be in suits."

Petillo and other security experts advise these extra measures to thwart

shoulder surfers:

-- If available, use a "swipe" phone with a magnetic strip reader that registers the card electronically.

-- Ask your long-distance carrier to block use of your card for countries or continents you're unlikely to call. A large number of unauthorized calls get placed to Africa, Pakistan, Colombia, Mexico, and the Middle East. Or put a dollar-amount ceiling on charges.

-- Memorize your number so you don't have to take your card out. AT&T offers a TrueChoice Calling Card that lets you pick any number combination.

-- Move your body to a slightly different position after punching in half your code number. This foils any in-line view crooks may have of the keypad.

-- Order a calling card without your four-digit pin number printed on it.

Chances are, your card provider will be the first to notice fraud after the company computer detects "unusual call activity," and it will alert you (as happened when $476 worth of calls were placed with my card from Israel in three days). Better, though, to prevent those calls from being made in the first place.

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