43,835% Increase in US Phone Numbers Offered to Fraudsters for Call Termination Since 2020

Symmetry Solutions, providers of the PRISM fraud intelligence service, has reported a massive rise in North American phone numbers advertised for call termination via bulletin boards frequented by fraudsters. Although the problem is rarely discussed outside of the telecoms industry, it is an open secret that fraudsters routinely monetize their crimes by receiving a cut of fees charged for terminating calls at destinations they control. This leads to harm for individuals and businesses when fraudsters use a variety of scams and hacks to push traffic to those destinations. These include the wangiri ‘one-ring’ scam which fools unwary consumers into returning a missed call, and the remote hacking of corporate PBXs which are then programmed to make as many calls as possible until the hack is noticed. A 2021 survey by the Communications Fraud Control Association (CFCA), an entity dominated by US telcos, claimed the likeliest destinations for fraudulent calls are Cuba, the UK, Tunisia, Morocco and Jamaica, but this conflicts with Symmetry observing a 43,835 percent increase in the choice of US destinations made available for the termination of fraud since 2020.

An old adage asserts there is no smoke without fire. Per Symmetry’s data, a dark black cloud shrouds the worst US states, including Alaska, California, Hawaii and South Dakota. This is extraordinary because there were hardly any US numbers advertised on sites monitored by Symmetry as recently as 2020. In 2021 they observed a 54-fold increase in US numbers published. This was followed by another 8-fold increase from 2021 to 2022. Just one state, Alaska, offered 82 times as many phone numbers for use by fraudsters last year as had been offered across the entire USA during 2020.

Neighboring Canada offers fewer numbers for use by fraudsters but has been subject to an even more dramatic increase during the same period, with 69,340 percent more numbers made available in 2022 compared to 2020. This alarming trend in the USA and Canada is not found in other countries covered by the North American Numbering Plan, such as Jamaica. Canadian area code 867, which covers Yukon, Nunavut, and the Northwest Territories, ranks alongside Alaska and Hawaii as providing the most destinations for fraud within the region.

It is a common misconception that sites offering destinations to fraudsters will only list ‘premium rate’ numbers. Fraudsters have traditionally made money from premium rate numbers because the companies who supply those numbers will openly advertise the portion of termination fees paid to businesses that are supposed to provide services via those numbers. Improved worldwide policing of premium rate numbers has forced fraudsters to find other ways of collecting money from criminal traffic. This includes short-stopping, a technique where a call is made to an ordinary phone number in a country that charges high termination fees for all calls, but where the call never reaches that country because an intermediate telco deliberately misroutes it. The dialer pays for a call to an expensive country but hears a recorded message from a machine in a different country with lower termination fees, allowing the fraudsters to pocket the difference. There is plenty of evidence of short-stopping per Symmetry’s data. However, their data now also shows that US toll-free numbers comprise a significant share of the numbers being advertised on sites that used to be focused on premium rate scams. No end user pays for these calls, so fraudsters must be tapping into the wholesale revenues generated by calls to US toll-free numbers.

Industry initiatives that are meant to reduce telecoms fraud will continue to fail if they keep applying piecemeal strategies to a holistic problem. Symmetry’s data illustrates how frauds that victimize ordinary consumers, such as wangiri robocalls, share common elements with crimes that target big businesses, such as artificial bot traffic, much like the SMS bot traffic which caused Twitter to lose USD60mn a year. The phrase ‘whac-a-mole’ is often used to describe the infuriating inability to stop telecoms fraud. But this is a poor analogy, because the target in a game of whac-a-mole will always pop up from a pre-determined selection of holes, whilst fraudsters are far more adaptable and imaginative in how they combine old and new exploits. Organized criminals are purchasing rogue services in much the same way they have previously, but the data shows they must be using them for crimes that were not prevalent a few years ago. This can leave fraud managers and regulators perched ready to bash moles that appear within their field of vision, but blind to others running rampant behind their backs. In such circumstances it is no surprise that criminals keep prospering and growing in strength every year, and thus able to unleash yet more harm on all sections of society.

Symmetry Solutions has published a limited selection of statistics about the observed surge in destinations within the USA and Canada. They have also indicated they are willing to privately share further information with North American anti-fraud professionals. Find out more from here.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.