Reports of being charged thousands of dollars are overblown, but there are some risks.
Rumors are circulating about scam area codes: If you call numbers with these prefixes, the story goes, you’ll be charged thousands of dollars.
That’s not true, the Better Business Bureau says, although there are real risks of being ripped off. It describes the scam like this:
You get a voicemail from an unknown number. The person on the message claims there is an emergency and urges you to call a number starting with an 809, 284, 649, or 876 area code. The “emergency” varies, but common scenarios involve either an injured (or arrested) relative, an overdue bill or a cash prize to claim.
These area codes are for phone numbers in the Caribbean. The 809 is in the Dominican Republic, 284 is the British Virgin Islands, 649 is the Turks and Caicos Islands, and 876 is Jamaica. There’s nothing inherently wrong with calling them, as long as you know people in those areas or recognize them as area codes outside the U.S.
One advantage for scammers operating from those area codes is that “sometimes calls between neighboring countries do not require the usual ‘011’ international prefix,” the BBB says. So American callers may not realize the numbers are from outside the country, even though international charges will apply.
Rumor-investigating Snopes.com notes that people have been warning each other about this scam through email and other means since at least 2000, and over time the supposed cost of the calls keeps inflating, “to the point that readers are now warned they may be charged more than $2,400 per minute if they fall for this scam!”
In actuality, it would probably cost about $25, Snopes says, and phone providers will likely remove it if you give them a call. AT&T, in a warning about the 809 area code, says it “will work with you and the carrier to help remove fraudulent charges from the phone bill.” The real risk is in giving scammers money or personal information.
AARP recently warned about area code 876 in particular, noting that the scams there usually involve winning a Jamaican lottery or a new car. They require you to send a processing fee for your winnings, “through a wire from Western Union, Green Dot Card or in a creative way such as putting $100 bills in each page of a magazine.”