As the holiday season gets under way, travelers are well-advised to keep a hand on their wallets and an eye on their long-distance calling cards, particularly when making quick calls at airport terminals, bus stops and train stations, security experts say.
"Scam artists work the transit points this time of year," said Robert Fox, assistant vice president of security for US Sprint. "These guys are good, and they know what they're doing. They're in these places eight hours a day, and their job is to steal these numbers."
That's what happened to Gary Arlen of Bethesda.
Awaiting a train at Penn Station recently, Mr. Arlen said he used his US Sprint long-distance calling card to make a quick call to a friend in New Jersey. Cost of the call: 88 cents.
But Mr. Arlen was shocked to find out the next day that someone using his calling card number -- apparently stolen at Penn Station by some eagle-eyed scam artist -- had racked up $2,000 in calls.
Mr. Arlen said that by 9 a.m. the next morning, a Sprint representative was on the phone to explain that his card had been canceled: Sprint's network had flagged the card because of the erratic calling and, after being unable to reach him to verify the calls, the card was automatically canceled.
"I couldn't believe that happened," said Mr. Arlen, who was immediately issued a new calling card -- without the $2,000 in charges.
"It made me feel good to know that somebody was looking out for me."
Although there is no ironclad way to keep scam artists away, consumers can make things tougher for them, security experts say.
That would include memorizing your calling card number so you don't have to place the card on the shelf of a telephone booth when making a call, Mr. Fox said.
The tendency, he said, is to keep the card on the shelf of the booth for the duration of the call, giving eagle-eyed scam artists ample time to memorize the number and use it illegally later.
"There are people who will intentionally stand at the booth next to you and pretend to be in a conversation -- maybe wearing a business suit and looking clean-cut -- whose sole intention is to read those numbers," said Mr. Fox.
With phone banks jammed this time of year during the rush of holiday travelers, laying a card out on a
phone booth shelf is an "invitation to someone to read those numbers," he said.
The problem is compounded if the unwary traveler isn't familiar with how to make a calling-card call and moves through the call sequence slowly, he said.
To guard against that happening, Mr. Fox also recommends memorizing your long distance calling card number, and familiarizing yourself with the calling card drill: Dial "0" plus the number you wish to call, wait for the tone, punch in your calling-card number, then wait for the call to be completed.
His other recommendation, memorization, will not necessarily save you from the scam artists.
Mr. Arlen, for example, is a frequent traveler who long ago dedicated his calling-card number to memory. But he still got nabbed.
The lesson, said Vincent Guerrieri, product manager of operator services for Bell Atlantic Corp., another issuer of calling cards, is to take special care whenever you use a calling-card number.
"It's easy for anyone looking over your shoulder to watch the numbers being dialed and use the numbers later," he said.
Though experts recommend avoiding it if you can, if you must give your calling-card number verbally to an operator (vs. direct-dialing without operator assistance), do so quietly, and pay attention to who might be standing around, advises Herb Linnen of American Telephone & Telegraph Co.
"Be vigilant in those rare cases when you have to verbalize the number," he said.
If you pay attention and keep those cards in your wallet, you should come out of the holiday season unscathed by seasonal scam artists, Mr. Fox said.
"Just be careful to begin with, and treat it like you would any other charge card," he said.