Be careful when placing collect or other operator-assisted calls, or you or the party you’re calling may wind up paying more than you expected.

Unexpected charges may come as a result of a scheme that takes advantage of individuals who misdial phone numbers. The scheme goes something like this: You place a collect call from a public phone or payphone, intending to use a service like 1-800-CALL-ATT or 1-800-COLLECT. But you misspell or hit an incorrect button when dialing. You accidentally dial something like 1-800-CALLLAT. You get connected to the party you wished to call, but the phone company that connects you is not the one you thought you were using. Instead, it is a company that secured 800 numbers similar to well-known ones, likely hoping that you might accidentally misdial your intended number. If this happens, you are probably unaware you are using a different phone carrier than the one you intended to use because you don’t know you misdialed. Often, the company won’t identify itself to you or the person receiving the collect call before connecting the call.

Surprise! The charge for the misdialed call is two or more times higher than it would have been had you reached the carrier you intended to use.

To Avoid the Scheme

Callers placing collect calls should: 

  • Dial carefully. Listen on the handset to make sure you hit each number only once. If you aren’t sure you dialed correctly, hang up and start again.
  • Listen carefully. Once you’ve made the call, listen for the provider identification. If you placed the call from a public phone (hotel, airport, etc.) or payphone, the Federal Communications Commission has rules that require the provider to orally identify itself before your call is connected and billed. The rules also require the provider to give you directions on how to determine the price of your call. If you don’t hear provider identification, ask the operator (if you are able to reach a live operator) who the provider is and what the rates are. If the provider or rate is not what you wanted, hang up and dial again. If you do not hear provider identification and you can’t reach an operator, hang up and dial again.

Receivers of collect calls should: 

  • Ask if uncertain. When a collect call is connected, listen for an identification of the service provider before accepting the charges. If you don’t hear the provider identified, say “no” to the collect call until you’re able to find out who is connecting the call. If it’s a provider that’s not familiar to you and/or you’re not comfortable with, ask for the per-minute rates. If you don’t get an answer, say “no” to the call. If possible, ask the person who is calling to try again.
  • Review phone bills carefully. Although a review may not prevent you from becoming a victim of this scheme, it may help you avoid it in the future. If you or your family frequently make collect or other operator-assisted calls from public phones or payphones, be aware of the dangers of misdialing.

If you suspect you’re a victim of this scheme, contact the phone company that charged you for the call in question. The company’s number should be listed on your phone bill. If you can’t resolve the matter directly, you can file a complaint with the FCC. There is no charge for filing a complaint.

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Careless Dialing Could Cost You Money Guide (pdf)


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Date Last Updated/Reviewed: 
Friday, September 8, 2017