In what sounds like the plot from an international thriller, warnings today of a Syracuse-based phone hacking ring that has connections to Al Qaeda and is costing small businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars.
U S Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), in Syracuse on Monday afternoon, told reporters that 26 small businesses have already come forward, saying they've been hacked. And, they have to pay the bills. At least two are being sued by their phone companies for non-payment.
Schumer is calling on the telecommunications industry to step up fraud detection. He also wants the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates phones, to order the same kind of protection that credit cards carry , which removes the financial liability from the business, or person, who's been hacked.
Schumer says law enforcers are investigating the Al Qaeda link. Phone numbers that have been compromised here in Syracuse are being linked to known phones that are known to be linked to the terror organization in Somalia and the Philippines. Schumer says it may be a money maker for Al Qaeda, or a way to communicate with incospicuous numbers, but either way needs more investigation.
The Senator says the hacking could happen to anyone, but the concern right now is the financial impact on small business.
Even though the numbers used are Syracuse-based, most of the victims seem to be in the Albany area, but Schumer says at least one of those businesses has a connection here: Best Cleaners got a $150-thousand dollar bill for 9,000 international calls. It's one of the companies being sued for non-payment by its phone company. Schumer says Best was planning on expanding into Syracuse this year, but that's on hold because of the scam costs.
The hackers gain access to the numbers through a loophole in voicemail systems, and until there is regulation, this advice to small businesses and others:
1. Use a complex access code, and not the 'default' access code that comes with the system.
2. Change the access code frequently.
3. If you don't make overseas calls, block international calls from your phone system.
The scam is especially costly because the calls can be made within a short time period, and are not discovered until the phone bill comes, up to a month later. Schumer also urges small businesses to pay especial attention to their phone charges.