The method a North Idaho teenager used to rack up more than $15,000 in phone-sex calls resembles two recent cases of fraud in the Midwest, authorities have discovered.
All three instances involve young men using unsophisticated methods to make the calls from their homes, then bill them to others.
“This is a person who does not even have a home computer,” Kootenai County Sheriff’s Deputy John Lane said of the boy accused in the North Idaho case.
The North Idaho case, one in Wisconsin and one in Indiana all involve GTE, the nation’s largest local-service phone company, a spokesman for the company that handles those charges said.
Kootenai County sheriff’s deputies arrested a Spirit Lake teenager this month after he made more than 100 calls to a Florida sex line.
The action followed dozens of complaints to GTE from Hayden Lake residents who found the charges in their monthly bills.
The unidentified teen called the 900 phone number and had the $5-perminute charges billed to Hayden Lake customers of GTE.
His arrest reportedly came after the teen’s foster mother found him making one of those calls.
Midwest police investigators are looking at the three GTE episodes to see if they are connected.
A phone company security officer, who did not want to be identified, said the three cases suggest parts of GTE’s system may be vulnerable where older phone equipment has not been updated.
“The problem in Idaho would not have happened if GTE had the same (newer) phone equipment in Spirit Lake that they have in Hayden Lake,” he said.
GTE officials in Portland said that neither the Hayden Lake or Spirit Lake phone systems are at fault.
“Something happened that should not have been possible,” said Bob Wayt, GTE’s public affairs manager for Idaho. “But no phone system is ever totally failsafe,” he added.
In the Wisconsin episode, an 18-yearold amassed more than $85,000 in sexline charges. The Indiana 19-year-old billed about $115,000 in sex calls to residents.
The Indiana and Idaho charges for the 900-line calls were all made to numbers with a common three-digit prefix. The Wisconsin calls were billed to customers sharing two sets of prefixes.
That fact suggests the callers dialed into a GTE office, then were able to create a number that the system assumed was about to dial another call. In North Idaho, all those calls started with 772, a Hayden Lake prefix.
That method did not rely on inside information about how phone companies work, said a spokesman for the company that sends out the billings to phone customers.
“We’re not talking about rocket scientists here,” said John Carter of Long Distance Billing Co. The Las Vegas firm collects charges for 900 calls and sends them to phone companies like GTE. The phone companies in turn pass the bills to customers.
While the similarities are strong, GTE officials are still investigating the Idaho incident, Wayt said.
“I’m sure it (the similarity) is something our security people will be discussing” with investigators in the Midwest, Wayt said.
No one has found evidence suggesting the Idaho teenager learned how to commit phone fraud from anyone else.
To explain why GTE officials think the Idaho teen received no help could aid others looking to copy that method, Wayt said.
Police and state patrol officials in Indiana and Wisconsin said that outdated phone equipment in rural areas of those states probably allowed the fraud to happen.
Wayt denied that the same problem was a factor in the Idaho fraud.
“All we can say is we’re exploring remedies to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said. He said GTE’s North Idaho equipment is modern and is not defective.
He challenged a statement from a staff member of Idaho’s Public Utilities Commission, that GTE’s Spirit Lake phone lines are not as modern as other sections of its North Idaho system.
“That’s absolutely not correct,” Wayt said. “The entire Kootenai County area has digital equipment and is state-of-the-art.”
Kootenai County sheriff’s deputies have interviewed the Spirit Lake teen and say they don’t know how he learned to crack the phone system.
The Indiana teen told officials he learned the method from cable TV. But Indiana State Patrol investigator Jim Lapczynski said, “I could believe that he found out about the 900 number that way. But how to do the fraud? No way.”
Phone company officials nationwide share information with each other about how thieves operate, said Frances Feld of the Communications Fraud Control Association in Washington, D.C.
“Teens like to exchange ideas on how to do this on computer bulletin boards,” she added. If they don’t have computers, they may have learned tips through friends who do, she said.
She said the most common phone fraud, by far, involves misuse of credit card numbers.
The Spirit Lake teen will be charged later this week with grand theft, said Barry Black, Kootenai County deputy prosecutor.
Wayt said GTE encourages customers to review bills and notify the company of incorrect charges. It won’t ask Hayden Lake customers to pay for the 900 calls, he said.
He also said customers who had installed a 900 call block on their phones still would have been stung in the recent case.
Such blocks stop callers at home from dialing a 900 number. The method used, however, bypassed the home and made GTE’s system dial an outgoing call as though the customer had made it.
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Tom Sowa Staff writers Staff writer Winda Benedetti contributed to this report.