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90# Telephone Scam

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Netlore Archive: Viral alert warns telephone customers not to comply with instructions from persons claiming to be phone company service technicians to 'test the line' by dialing 90#, #09, or #90.

Description: Viral rumor
Circulating since: Jan. 1998
Status: Semi-true (U.S. only) / Overblown (see details below)


2013 example:
As shared on Facebook, 10/17/13:

Phone Scam


1998 example:
Email contributed by Joanna W., Feb. 22, 1998:

Subject: Fwd: Phone Scam (fwd)

Hi everyone,

A friend sent me this e-mail today to warn me and anyone else of yet another phone scam. Beware.

I received a telephone call from an individual identifying himself as an AT&T Service Technician that was running a test on our telephone lines. He stated that to complete the test I should touch nine (9), zero (0), pound sign(#) and hang up. Luckily, I was suspicious and refused.

Upon contacting the telephone company we were informed that by pushing 90# you end up giving the individual that called you access to your telephone line and allows them to place a long distance telephone call, with the charge appearing on your telephone bill. We were further informed that this scam has been originating from many of the local jails/prisons.

Please pass the word.


1998 example:
Email contributed by Patrick C., Feb. 22, 1998:

On Saturday, 24 January 1998, Naval Air Station, Joint Reserve Base, New Orleans' Quarterdeck received a telephone call from an individual identifying himself as an AT&T Service Technician that was running a test on our telephone lines. He stated that to complete the test the QMOW should touch nine (9), zero (0), pound sign (#) and hang up. Luckily, the QMOW was suspicious and refused. Upon contacting the telephone company we were informed that by using 90# you end up giving the individual that called you access to your telephone line and allows them to place a long distance telephone call, with the charge appearing on your telephone [bill]. We were further informed that this scam has been originating from many of the local jails/prisons. Please 'pass the word.'


Analysis by Patrick Crispen: As shocking as this may sound, the "nine-zero-pound" story is true... sort of (though it does not apply to telephone systems outside the U.S.).

What the warning letter floating around the Net doesn't say is that this scam only works on telephones where you have to dial 9 to get an outside line. Unless you have to dial 9 to get an outside line at home, this scam does not affect residential telephone users. Dialing "nine-zero-pound" on a residential phone will only give you a busy signal. That's it.

On some business phones, however, dialing "nine-zero-pound" may transfer a call to an outside operator and give the caller the opportunity to call anywhere in the world and charge it to your business' phone bill ... maybe. It all depends on how your business' telephone system is set up. If your company doesn't require you to dial 9 to get an outside line (for example, if you have a direct outside telephone line on your desk or if your company's phone system requires you to dial a number other than 9 to get an outside line) the "nine-zero-pound" scam does not affect you. Also, if your company's phone system is set up so that you cannot make a long distance call once you have accessed an outside line (a lot of companies now limit all outside lines to local calls only), the "nine-zero-pound" scam does not affect you either.

The "nine-zero-pound" story only affects those businesses that require you to dial 9 to get an outside line and then place no restrictions on who or where you can call once you get that outside line. And, just to be anal-retentive, let me say one more time that, unless you have to dial 9 to get an outside line at home, this scam does not affect residential telephone users. [It also probably doesn't affect non-U.S. telephone users. This is especially true for British telephone users whose telephone system is so complex that NO ONE in the UK knows how to use BT's phones (although I am sure that BT users are currently dealing with some sort of "dial q-seven-pi-cromwell-eleventeen-tomato" scam)].

— Patrick Crispen  (Reprinted from The Internet TourBus, by permission)


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Further reading:

90# Telephone Scam
FCC Consumer Advisory, 9 May 2011


Last updated 10/18/13


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