FOX 8 Defenders: Hackers racked up $201K phone bill for local business

Covington, La. - The FOX 8 Defenders showed us last month how hackers tapped a North Shore business's phone line, increasing its monthly bill from hundreds of dollars to $13,000. Volunteers with the National Council of Jewish Women, who staff the FOX 8 Defenders, got them relief but later learned that, before they cleared the line, scammers had already racked up another bill with the same business -- for an amount larger than any the Defenders had ever seen.

Business at Precision Sewing Machine Company in Covington hit a roadblock recently.

"I came in and our phone lines were dead. We had a problem with the phone lines," said owner Sammy Gagliano.

He said a large chunk of business is through his website and toll-free number outside of Louisiana.

Provider Charter Business Communications told FOX 8 that hackers figured out the voicemail password to Precision's toll-free line and tapped into it. Scammers then made phone calls about every minute to the Republic of Guinea in West Africa -- a long distance from Precision Sewing in Covington, La. -- racking up a large bill that month.

"It started out at about $13,000," explained Gagliano. The exact amount totaled $13,247.71.

The FOX 8 Defenders worked with Gagliano's provider to clear up that first bill. Afterwards, he changed his voicemail password and made it longer so it's not easy to detect.

What he didn't know was that, before his line was cleared, scammers had already racked up another bill.

"The second case was with AT&T, and his bill was the most outrageous bill we've ever heard of. It's the biggest case we've ever had," said Susan Tramontana, executive director of the FOX 8 Defenders.

In one 24-hour period, someone made dozens of long-distance phone calls lasting around 120-minutes, each at a cost of about $1,400 a piece, to the same number, this time in Taiwan.

"His bill for one day with AT&T was $201,661.96, for one day," said Tramontana.

Gagliano tried to get the bill resolved on his own, filing a report with AT&T's Fraud Resolution Group on May 23. "By July 11th, he had received his second or third communication, demanding payment by AT&T," explained Tramontana.

That's when he called the FOX 8 Defenders and volunteers with the National Council of Jewish Women for help a second time.

An AT&T spokesperson tells us its billing system is automated so Gagliano got the invoices, but in a fraud investigation like his, they say the customer is at no risk of collection, meaning Gagliano was off the hook for over $200,000.

"This situation was almost instantaneous robo-dialing overseas, and that is why it racked up so many calls so quickly," said Sue Sperry with AT&T Public Relations. "AT&T does have checks in place, and this situation set off alarms. Before it could be blocked, the scammers racked up this very large amount," said Sperry.

AT&T said some scammers can access customer data easily by hacking into voicemail, and they recommend very strong passwords that don't use remote access to voicemail.