Code thieves run woman's cellular bill to $10,000

June 20, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Nicole Wigman's cellular phone bill is a bit higher than she expected -- by over $10,000.

The Arnold woman received a 63-page bill in the mail Monday for $2,848 worth of calls. And when she called to complain, Bell Atlantic Nynex Mobile records showed another $8,000 in charges had been rung up on her cellular phone in the week since her monthly bill was tabulated and mailed.

"I was floored," said Wigman, 27.

Bell Atlantic determined that she had been the victim of cellular phone thieves and agreed not to make her pay for the calls.

James J. Gerace, Bell Atlantic Nynex spokesman, said thieves apparently picked up the radio signals emitted by Wigman's phone, acquired her cellular telephone number and either used it to make a flurry of long-distance calls or sold it to others who did.

He said such thieves often park at shopping malls or along an interstate and use scanners to pick up signals emitted by cellular phones. They run the signals -- which contain the phone's identification codes and phone numbers -- through computers to sort out the codes, often selling them to customers who then make free long-distance calls.

Such cloning costs the cellular phone industry at least $600 million a year, Gerace said. It also is the focus of a $130,965 suit filed by Bell Atlantic Nynex in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to recover money lost to two men convicted of cellular phone fraud last November, he said.

With 32 million cellular phones in the United States, cloning has become a common problem, Gerace said. It started in 1990 in New York and Los Angeles, about six years after cellular phones first came on the market, and has spread throughout the country, he said.

"I wouldn't say it's increasing, but it's a constant problem," he said.

Gerace said a new computer program being used in New York and Philadelphia has a code-encryption device designed to foil such thefts by scrambling the signal illicit scanners pick up. He said he is unsure when the technology will be installed in the cellular phone network used by Baltimore-area customers.

"That's something that's being worked on," he said. "Our goal is to never have a customer see a phone bill like the one in this case, because it's anxiety-provoking."

Wigman said her phone number must have been sold because the May bill shows calls that could not have been made by one person. Calls last month were made minutes apart from Fairfax, Va., Cheverly and Oxon Hill, an impossibility for one caller, she said.

Calls were also made at all hours of the day from Hawaii, Las Vegas, New York City, Detroit, Chicago and Des Moines, Iowa, among other places.

"I've been a casual phone user for years, and I never make calls like that. If I make 10 to 12 calls a month, that's a lot," Wigman said.

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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