Who doesn't misdial a phone number now and again? Unfortunately, that innocent mistake can cost you money if the number you punch in by accident is a toll-free one being used as part of a so-called "fat-finger dialing" scam. 

The idea behind fat-finger fraud is to get you to pay for something you didn't want or to steal personal or financial data, and it's ridiculously easy to fall victim to it. It can happen if you accidentally use the wrong toll-free code—say the real number's code is 800, but the scammers have paid to have an 888 or 866 attached to the number's other seven digits. Or scammers may buy a toll-free number that has the same prefix as the number of a legitimate company but is otherwise off by one number. 

Familiar Numbers Make Good Targets

Fat-finger scammers target frequently called toll-free numbers, especially those that belong to respected companies and government agencies. AARP Fraud Watch has identified at least 30 commonly called numbers that have been spoofed in this way, including those for banks, investment firms, utility companies, insurance agencies, and government offices, such as the Social Security Administration, the Veterans Administration, and the IRS.

When consumers are patched through to the misdialed number, they're told they've won a prize, have been selected for a survey, or are eligible for gift vouchers, low-cost medical alert systems, magazine renewals, or vacation rewards. All they have to do is provide their address and the number of their credit or debit card, after which the voice on the other end of the line promises to transfer them to their intended party.

In fact, if you follow through, the only thing you’ll receive is an additional charge on your credit card, bank account (if using a debit card), or phone bill. Worse, you may find that you’ve been automatically enrolled in an ongoing subscription service you’ll be billed for every month. Worse, by sharing personal and financial information, you may open yourself to identity theft.

Adding insult to injury, the lure the scammers use is perfectly legal, says Bikram Bandy, coordinator for the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry. “It’s not illegal under our rules to obtain a phone number that is similar to the phone number of another company,” he says. “What is illegal is saying or doing things to trick someone into thinking you’re someone you’re not. But if someone calls and I say, ‘Congratulations, you’ve won a magazine offer,’ and I tell you how much it will cost and ask you for your credit card information, that’s not illegal because no misrepresentation has been made even if the way the consumer stumbled into the offer was through a fat-finger dial situation.”

How Consumers Can Protect Themselves

  • Double-check before you dial. “Be careful when you dial out,” warns Amy Nofziger, regional director with the AARP Foundation. “If you have a phone that digitally displays the number you dialed, make sure to compare it to what you meant to dial.”
  • Know your toll-free codes. It’s important to understand that there are multiple toll-free codes (800, 888, and 866). “Sometimes I’ve heard consumers say they didn’t know, so they automatically choose 800 for dialing out,” Nofziger says.
  • Don’t hesitate to hang up. If you are greeted by a recording or a live operator who doesn’t mention by name the company or agency you think you’ve called, hang up, check the number again, and redial. If it happens again, hang up and wait till you can confirm the number you are calling. Similarly, if you are told that you’ve qualified for a prize, have been selected for a survey, or are being offered a “free” product, end the phone call immediately.
  • Guard your personal information. Always be suspicious of anyone who asks for your Social Security number, birth date, or other personal information.
  • Pay attention to your phone bills. Check to make sure you aren’t being charged for any services or long distance calls you didn’t authorize or make.
  • Call it in. If you see anything suspicious report it to your phone company immediately. Also consider filing a complaint with your State’s Attorney General’s office, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Communications Commission.