Phone hackers dial up big charges for local businesses


APPLETON - Some area businesses are being targeted by hackers. But not through their computers.

Little did staff at Psychology Associates in Appleton know, one missed phone call last week would lead to big charges on their phone bill. Hackers broke into the office phone system.

"For at least a day," said Dr. Frank Cummings of Psychology Associates of the Fox Cities.

And an expensive day at that.

"Two and a half hours of phone calls and they supposedly charge two dollars a minute," said Cummings.

Calls that went overseas to Somalia and the Philippines. But thanks to a phone call from AT&T, Cummings says he acted quickly to stop the calls.

"I unplugged our phone system so they could no longer make outgoing calls that we didn't know about."

The hackers call businesses after hours to access the voicemail system. Instead of leaving a message, they attempt to dial pass codes until they find one that gives them access. Then they make outgoing long-distance phone calls overseas with the calls charged to the business.

The De Pere Chamber of Commerce says two local businesses there were also hit.

But locally the attacks are so new a spokesperson with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection says they haven't heard of it yet. Neither has the Better Business Bureau.

"Absolutely new to our area, I have not been aware of any cases so far," said BBB Northeast Regional Director Susan Bach.

Bach says there are some ways for businesses to protect their phone systems.

Restrict international calls and outgoing after-hours calls. Create strong voicemail passwords and contact your phone service provider to ask about other security measures.

All things Cummings says his office has already done.

"There is nothing in there anymore, so there is no way they are going to get into our system."

So they won't have to fear the next time the phone rings.