It starts with a missed call from a foreign number. A quick Google search reveals the number originates from a West African country like Gambia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone. A probe through your memory might reveal a friend or relative in one of these countries, but beware before returning the call.
International numbers that ring once and hang up, expecting a call back, are often part of an international phone scam. Ayman Kayssi, an Electrical Engineering Professor at the American University of Beirut specializing in telecommunications network security, explained to NOW how these phone scams operate: “When you [call the number back], you are calling a ‘premium’ number or [are] redirected to one. The premium number has charges associated with it which may be a few US dollars per minute, but you do not know that since the number is unknown to you and is [originating] from some operator somewhere.”
According to WhoCallsMe.com, “a user-supplied database of phone numbers” that lists telephonic nuisances, automatic dialing equipment that hangs up after one ring is being used to scam unsuspecting mobile users.
In an effort to discover the source of the scam, NOW returned the calls of two numbers, one from Gambia and one from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first call was redirected to a ‘friendship phone line’ in Rabat, Morocco. The first woman, a Moroccan, exchanged formalities with NOW before saying it was time for her to go on break. She then passed NOW onto another woman. The second woman, also Moroccan, was more flirtatious and tried a wide array of timewasting techniques to keep NOW on the phone for a longer period of time. Neither woman could give a reasonable explanation as to why the number that called NOW originated from somewhere in West Africa and not Morocco.
The second call took NOW to a phony voice mailbox. Despite the number’s origin in West Africa, the message was left by a woman speaking Arabic with a Lebanese accent. The woman who left the message spoke slowly and seductively with frequent pauses, presumably in order to drive up the price of the call. The woman said she had met our caller in Beirut and hoped he would call her back, though she never left a number and never used a name to whom she was directing the call. Instead, she addressed the caller using Arabic pet names such as ‘habibi’ (my love) and ‘hayati’ (my life).
An administrator from WhoCallsMe.com wrote on the website that they’ve “investigated the multi-million-pound international trade in phone numbers that allows a ‘carrier’ in Lebanon to pass a Sierra Leone phone number to ‘resellers’ in countries like Cyprus, the Czech Republic, and Belize, who in turn rent them out to anyone who wants to use them to run a ‘promotion.’ Or a scam.” This is why the numbers originate from West Africa but direct callers to other locations.
Kayssi explains, “The operator has agreements with other operators (including Lebanese operators Touch and Alfa) to get this money from their subscribers. There are companies that trade in international call minutes and routing over different networks. One may be based in Lebanon and may or may not be aware of the scam.”
In layman’s terms, Lebanese mobile operators have legal agreements with international operators around the globe. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they are involved in elaborate plots to drain money from unsuspecting mobile users.
For more information on the scam, Telecommunications Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui referred NOW to an employee at Alfa but neither they nor anyone from Touch was able to provide any additional information.
Missed calls can be enticing and full of mystery, even more so when they come from an exotic foreign land. Yet despite the intrigue, discretion is called for when calling back these numbers; unless you don’t mind playing along with a scam and splashing some cash.
For those not interested in taking a gamble to see if they have a long-lost uncle in the Gambia or won the Congolese lottery, Kayssi has a few wise words: “People should not call back missed calls from unknown international numbers,” he said.
Follow the author @JustinSalhani
Read this article in Arabic