FOX 8 Defenders: Hackers tap business phone line, monthly bill skyrockets

Covington, La. -- A repair man performs a little surgery on a sewing machine at Precision Sewing Machine Company in Covington this week.  Repairs are one of several services the small business offers.

"We sell all types of sewing and embroidery machines, multi-needle machines. We give classes on all of it.  We teach sewing to teenagers as well as adults," said owner Sammy Gagliano.

Gagliano's father started the business in 1949, on the South Shore.  After Katrina, they moved and expanded north of the lake, adding every color fabric and style you could imagine.

Gagliano told FOX 8, a big chunk of his business is through his website and his toll-free number, outside of Louisiana and across the United States.

Recently, Gagliano said his business hit a road block.  "I came in and our phone lines were dead.  We had a problem with the phone lines," he said.

When he called his provider, Charter Business Communications, he said he was told hackers had tapped into his line.  "I just figured, you know, they would take care of it and that was it. And low and behold, about a month after that, I got a sizable bill in the mail from them," explained Gagliano.

What was normally a $250 to $400 a month bill had skyrocketed to $13,247.71.

A Precision Sewing employee showed us the 21 pages of phone calls, made just about every minute to Guinea - a country in West Africa and a long distance from Precision Sewing in Covington, Louisiana.

"You would think, if someone said, 'Oh, you know, you've had fraud on your phone lines and someone hacked into it,' they would put an end to it. But it just wasn't. It didn't stop," said a Precision Sewing employee.

"At first, they said that it wasn't their responsibility but they would, you know, look into it," said Gagliano.  He said later Charter offered to cover only some of the charges.

"We battled them and sent them emails and called and did everything for about a month. And when it got down to the wire. it was a Friday evening, about probably a month ago... and they said, 'Look, if your bill's not paid,' which was then at $7,000, 'We gonna' cut your service off, and you're gonna lose your Internet, you're gonna lose your phone lines,'" said Gagliano.

To prevent another interruption in his business, Gagliano paid the $7,000.  Then he turned to the FOX 8 Defenders, staffed with volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women, for help.

"At first [Charter] said, 'We'll give you a credit.' And then actually, when we got y'all involved in it, they said, 'Okay, well... we're gonna give you back your money,'" said Gagliano.  "They did do the right thing."

Gagliano said he was told hackers had tapped his line by figuring out the password for the voicemail to his toll-free line.  A much longer password is what he said he needed.

A Charter Communications spokeswoman tells FOX 8 that Charter is the conduit or provider for the phone service.  The business owner is responsible for their own phone system or equipment, and she says that's where the fraud occurred in this case.

Charter recommends that consumers and business owners ensure their own safeguards within their own systems.  They say passwords shouldn't be generic and easy to detect.  You want something that has no rhyme or reason.

If you have an employee who leaves your place of business, change your password.  The minute you notice something that doesn't look normal on your bill, they suggest you report it to your provider and law enforcement.


The FOX 8 Defenders and Volunteers with the National Council of Jewish Women are available to take your concerns.  If you have one, call them at 1-877-670-6397.