Saturday, August 7, 2010

Let Your Fingers Do the Taking

Today’s blog begins with a quick quiz:

Upon starting a new small business:
A. Your mood swings will go from optimism to depression to joy to sheer terror on an hourly basis
B. You will get great satisfaction out of being self-employed and providing valuable goods/services to the community
C. You will become rich
D. You will become destitute
E. Both C & D within a few months time
F. Knowing that you have financing by either investors or a bank, people will try to get that money as quickly as possible from you—sometimes legally, sometimes dubiously, and many times through chicanery

The correct answer is F (partial credit if you answered A or E). I have many stories to tell but this one just came up again so now I will provide this knowledge to others. This scam has less to do with knowing that you have money and more to do with hoping you won’t notice that they are stealing your money.

Let’s say you and I went to grade school together. Sometime during 4th grade, you borrowed $5 from me. I asked to be paid back several times until you finally said, “You want your five dollars? Here’s five for you!” You pull your fingers into a fist and punch me in the face.

Now let’s say for some reason, 44-year-old me just remembered this morning that you owed me that money. Somehow I get my hands on your telephone number. But instead of calling you, I call your phone company and tell them to bill you and to please send it to me.

Amazingly, the phone company says, “Sure.”

So you’re thinking, “Big deal. You got your $5 back.” However, you and I both know that we didn’t go to school together and that you really don’t owe me anything (although donations are always welcome). And to make it more fun, the $5 charge ends up on your bill by coincidence only because I’m going through a phone book, picking out numbers and telling the phone company that these phone numbers owe me money. And the phone company—because they can’t afford to hire humans—has a computer voice respond, “You betcha.”

Let’s assume I managed to bill 10,000 phone numbers $5 a month which comes to $50,000 a month. How many people will actually notice this charge on their 5-page phone bill? For fun, let’s assume that 50% (probably way too high) of the people complain and get it taken off their bill. I still get $25,000 a month! See you in Aruba! (Hmmm, wait maybe I should be making an infomercial…)

Of course, I would be too easy to track down this way. So let’s say there’s a company out there that we’ll call just for fun, JME Services, that specializes in what they call third party billing. Now I simply tell JME that you owe me money for what I call Special Directory Services, and they contact the phone company to have it added to your bill.

Your phone bill now lists a charge for Special Directory Services from JME Services but only provides a number for the phone company. You call the phone company which tells you there’s nothing they can do because JME told them to do it, but they give you JME’s phone number. JME will tell you there’s nothing they can do because I told them to do it, and they give you my phone number. Depending on how crooked I am, I may try to convince you that you really did order my services but more likely I’ll apologize and remove you from future billing because I’m already making a killing in this business. But the best part is that with three companies involved, they can all blame someone else! Plus I think you’d really enjoy my Special Directory Services if you knew what they were.

Every month I get charged $30 to $50 on my bill from some third party. Every month I call the phone company who then tells me to call JME who then tells me to call this mysterious third party who never answers. Eventually JME puts a stop on the billing and the phone company drops the charge from my bill. However, the phone company cannot put a stop on third party billing because the government requires them to allow it. Fantastic! Another example of the government working hard for the people.

The charges will stop for a few months then a new mysterious company will pop up with its hand in my back pocket. And so I go through the whole painful process again. The scammers have figured out for the bargain price of $35 a month, you’ll eventually tire of dealing with all these companies and just keep paying them.

As good as it feels to get that off my chest and take satisfaction in alerting others to read your phone bill with a magnifying glass, I realized I probably also inspired 6000 people to set up their own billing companies. Why not? It’s easy; just call the phone company where the answer is always, “You betcha!”

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