St. Louis Post Dispatch and Parameter: Phone Hacking

By: Susan Weich

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Date: May 16, 2013

Link to Story

A $600,000 phone bill? St. Peters real estate agent says it’s not her fault

First, the phones at Melissa Bream’s real estate company rang off the hook one Saturday with no one on the other end.

Then, the bills started pouring in.

There was a small one, for $5.90 from Sprint, even though Bream’s office doesn’t usually use that company. Another came from Vartek, a long-distance provider in Texas that Bream had never heard of, for $320.

There was a bill from Charter — for $14,234.09.

And five bills from AT&T totaled $586,371.26, more than most of the houses Bream sells.

“The girls opened the envelope and when I got in, they had it sitting on their desk,” Bream said. “They had this look on their faces like ‘Oh my god, she’s going to faint when she sees this.’ ”

In all, the phone bills came to more than $600,000.

Bream, whose monthly phone bill is usually about $300, says she was the victim of hackers dialing into her business’s lines. But she’s had a difficult time convincing the phone company, or in this case, several phone companies, that she shouldn’t have to pay for the charges.

More than 2,000 calls were made, most in a 24-hour period, to the African nations of Somalia and Guinea and to Azerbaijan, which is situated between Russia and Iran.

Bream’s phone service provider is Charter, but the bulk of the questionable calls were placed with AT&T.

Bream estimated she was on the phone between 60 and 70 times in the past month, trying to get the bills cleared up. Each time, she got a different person and had to retell her story.

“The companies are so big and when you call in, it takes you 10 minutes to even talk to a person,” Bream said. “They say, ‘Let me access your file,’ and then, ‘OK, we’ll get back to you.’ ”

The problem began on March 9, a Saturday, when her receptionist was the only one in the office. The phone system, which has seven lines, was ringing non-stop in the morning, and every time the receptionist picked up, no one was there.

“After a few hours, she got a phone call from AT&T’s fraud management department, saying that someone was ‘porting’ Charter’s phone lines,” she said.

The receptionist called Bream to tell her what was happening. Bream also got calls from Charter, who noticed something was wrong.

When she got into work on Monday, Bream asked the company who installed her phone system to come to the office, and Charter had a representative there, too.

New security measures were put into place, including international call blocking. And the problem seemed to be taken care of, Bream said — until she got the bills.

Bream initially thought the bills were some kind of joke.

“Then I started to really look at it, and I thought, ‘They’re going to want me to pay this, and I don’t have this kind of money,’ ” she said.

It didn’t help that she got dozens of robocalls a day from Charter and AT&T, telling her to pay the bills. Bream eventually hired a lawyer and has reported what happened to police, who say they are investigating.

After being contacted by the Post-Dispatch, a spokesperson for AT&T said late Wednesday that the company was working with Bream and planned to remove any charges resulting from the fraudulent calls. Charter, meanwhile, said it had reduced Bream’s bill to $3,900 but was continuing to review her case.

Dave Chronister of Parameter Security in St. Charles, which specializes in hacking issues, believes Bream was the victim of two different phone problems.

First, there’s phone slamming — switching a consumer’s telephone company for local, local toll or long distance service without permission. Second, Chronister said, a hacker dialed in with either an access code or some other device to allow the outbound calls.

Bream isn’t the first business owner to encounter the problem. In 2009, a small company owner in Boston was sued by AT&T after someone hacked his lines to the tune of $891,470. The telecom giant eventually abandoned the lawsuit.

That company had a PBX system — a private telephone network used within a company, something Bream says she doesn’t have.

Bream said she’d like to change her phone number, but after the investment she’s made to promote her agency on the Internet, billboards and business cards, it would be too costly.

“I mean, you’re held captive,” she said.

She did, however, pay what she estimated her real phone bill would have been — $337.39.