SA woman stunned by $46,000 cellphone bill

Fraudsters racked up thousands of long-distance calls to Dominican Republic

SAN ANTONIO – When Jeannie McFarlane opened her cellphone bill, she got a doozy of a wrong number: $46,435.70.

“I thought it was a glitch,” she said.

A closer look showed four new lines had mysteriously been added to her account.

“They went in and just opened four lines and racked up a bunch of minutes internationally,” McFarlane said.

Her bill included page after page listing thousands of calls to the Dominican Republic.

“They only lasted about a week, just back to back to back phone calls,” she said.

McFarlane called her provider, AT&T, and was told the fraudulent charges would be removed. She said she was told someone had used malicious software, or malware, to steal her login information and added the phone lines to her account.

“It all seems very strategic, like they knew what they were doing,” McFarlane said while looking over the string of long-distance calls.

Each line rang up about $10,000 in phone charges.

McFarlane is not the first target of something like this.

In an operation called Operation Toll-Free, the FBI in Miami busted a sophisticated global scheme in which the defendants stole access to cellphones of unsuspecting Americans and routed thousands of internet calls through them to the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations known for high calling rates.   

One defendant, sentenced to nearly five years, said he was paid tens of thousands of dollars from at least one voice over internet protocol company for routing the international calls, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

“You think of credit cards and bank statements and all that happening, but this is something as simple as a cellphone bill,” McFarlane said.

AT&T said the company contacted McFarlane about fraud on her account and “quickly reversed the unauthorized activity.”

AT&T offered the following links to help consumers be aware of identity theft and malware:

To reduce risk of mobile malware, telecommunications experts suggest being vigilant about phone updates, using secure passwords and passcodes and being careful about clicking on links and downloading apps. They suggest getting rid of apps you don’t use.

And, like McFarlane, keep a close eye on your bill in case trouble comes calling.

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Marilyn Moritz

Providing information that betters someone's life. That's what Marilyn Moritz likes the most about her job.