A Cook Islander living in the United States recently contacted CI News about the suspected scam affecting Rarotonga.
The man’s home phone company is Verizon, a major telecommunications provider in the States. He had been trying to call his mother in Rarotonga for over a week – something he can usually do without a problem – but kept getting a recording saying the call could not be made due to technical difficulties.
Verizon told him they would investigate, and after four days told him the Cook Islands was an area that Verizon was putting a “block” on because of fraud. The company offered no other explanation.
While Verizon did not respond to CI News enquiries, Telecom Cook Islands arranged for test calls to be made through Verizon and these were successful – meaning Verizon has not barred all calls to the Cooks, or the block was temporary.
Telecom chief executive Jules Maher says the caller may have been the victim of what is known as short-stopping or call-hijacking fraud, when calls get routed away from the intended destination and the terminating telecommunications operator – “who could be a small, unscrupulous outfit” – can collect the charges.
“When you dial an international number from anywhere in the world, your call gets sent by your telecommunications company to an operator providing international routes. Usually the cheapest route is chosen automatically by a computer system,” explains Maher.
“An individual call may be handed over to many different operators that have the physical infrastructure to deliver it at least part of its intended journey. If one of those operators prematurely stops the call it can collect its revenue without having to pay anything to the next carrier to deliver it to the next step on the intended journey.
“If hundreds of thousands of these calls are stopped or hijacked in this way, these unscrupulous operators can make some big money.”
Maher draws an analogy of a person taking a parcel to a post office in New York for delivery to Rarotonga.
“The post office charges the customer $20 postage, knowing it will cost $18 to have it shipped to the Cook Islands and the post office will therefore make $2 on the transaction. However, ‘Phil the Freighter’ comes along and says, ‘I can get the parcel to Rarotonga cheaper than your normal parcel delivery company. I will deliver it for only $15’. So the post office gives him the parcel and $15 but Phil never intended to deliver the parcel. He just pockets the $15 and dumps the parcel in a rubbish bin.”
That is what happens with these calls, says Maher.
“We receive reports of these problems from time to time and they are very annoying for the caller and the person expecting their call.”
Maher says it is important that customers complain to their telecommunications company if their call is not connected, because their carrier can trace the call from the customer’s premises to the operator that prematurely stopped the call.
“They should then blacklist that operator so that no more calls are sent through their routes.”
Telecom Cook Islands also wants to hear about these problems when they occur, so staff can ask international telecommunications partners to investigate.
“We need to know the time and place of the call, plus the number called from and the number the customer was trying to call.”