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Strange Calling Error Suggests Reporter Stumbled Upon Cuba Target Of Phone Fraud


A funny thing happened when Sarah Zhang tried to dial Cuba. First, she got an error message. Then she heard more numbers being dialed and then a British accent that said, the moon was shining brightly, the Martians had taken away the excavating machine. Recognize those lines? She did. They're from H.G. Wells' "War Of The Worlds." So she double-checked the number, redialed - well, let's get the rest of the story. Sarah Zhang is a science technology and health reporter for The Atlantic. She's in our studios now. Thanks so much for being with us.

SARAH ZHANG, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What happened next?

ZHANG: I tried it again (laughter) as you might when you're trying to do a science experiment. And I - the second time I tried it, I got an error message, and it disconnected. And, well, it's like, this is weird. You know, same thing, two different conclusions. So I try a third time, and this time I got "Animal Farm."

SIMON: A recording of "Animal Farm," the George Orwell book.

ZHANG: Yes, exactly, fell a little bit on the nose for Cuba.

SIMON: (Laughter) I'll say. I mean, so two legs good, four legs better, or something like that from one of the...

ZHANG: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly.

SIMON: What did you find out about what's going on?

ZHANG: Yeah. So I started asking some questions, and it turns out that what I had stumbled into is actually some international phone fraud. So what was happening probably in my case is that the company that was supposed to connect me to Cuba never connected me to Cuba. They just connected me to a voice box that was playing an audio book. And, you know, it's not entirely random that we're talking about Cuba here actually because Cuba's really expensive to call. It can sometimes be almost a dollar a minute. So...

SIMON: And you've got a range all around the world, too, if you call from the U.S. because there aren't direct lines.

ZHANG: Yeah, exactly. Every phone call that gets to Cuba is actually passing through, like, many different lines and several different companies that kind of each is a different hop. And this last company is maybe not so scrupulous and was pretending to connect to Cuba and charging Cuba rates but actually connecting something where they're, you know, it's costing them zero cents a minute instead of, you know, 90 cents a minute.

SIMON: And this is something you have to pay because on the phone record it says there was a connection.

ZHANG: Yeah, exactly. Well - so this is actually kind of interesting. So some carriers just think this is the cost of doing business, so they don't really care about this fraud. You know, it's not that much money. It's - and it costs money to investigate, so they're just like, well, this happens. And the way - the reason this happens, it's kind of like a collective action problem. The last carrier's making money. The second-to-last carrier is supposed to pay that last carrier. The third-to-last carrier is supposed to pay that second-to-last carrier. The kind of costs just go - passed up the chain and...

SIMON: This is a pyramid scheme in that everybody pays the next person up, but nobody has to make good on the service.

ZHANG: Right, exactly. Unless you go investigate down the rabbit hole, like, no one really knows what's happening.

SIMON: And these are companies that aren't actually providing phone service. They're just - they're just filching off those who do to charge money.

ZHANG: Yeah. So probably what happened here is I actually was dialing a wrong number. I actually later found out the number I had was outdated. So it probably was providing phone service in some cases. But then when it's like this is a wrong number, well, this is a chance to do some fraud so we're able to earn some extra money here. Actually, a really - another fascinating thing is that it's not always audiobooks. It can be pretty much any random recording to get people to stay on the phone. So one fraud investigator I talked to said it could be anything from lottery numbers to fake dial tones to adult entertainment to even heavy breathing, anything that might get people to stay on just a little bit longer.

SIMON: Heavy breathing will do that. So are you more likely to get it done in some countries than others?

ZHANG: Yeah, absolutely. So this - as I said, Cuba is a country that's kind of expensive to call. Some other common ones are, like, Latvia and Somalia. And it's purely economics. These places are expensive to call, so that's where you can earn the most money.

SIMON: Do we know who the fraudsters are?

ZHANG: We don't. There are organized crime rings around the world that do some of this kind of fraud, but they're really hard to investigate because, as we said earlier, it goes through so many different countries and you have to get so many different investigators involved.

SIMON: And let me understand this - they are providing no service and getting paid for it.

ZHANG: (Laughter) Yes, exactly. It's a great business model.

SIMON: Sarah Zhang of The Atlantic, thanks very much for being with us.

ZHANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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