Many viewers and even some of my colleagues here at Action News 5 have been forwarding me e-mails warning "don't call numbers with an 809 area code."
The e-mails appear just like all the rest of those "urban legend" e-mails that friends mindlessly dump into your e-mailbox.
Except this one is not an urban legend. It's real, however highly exaggerated.
The 809 area code scams starts with an UNSOLICITED PHONE CALL. It can also be a message left on your voice mail.
The caller breathlessly tells you that you have WON A PRIZE, or a FAMILY MEMBER IS SICK OR HAS BEEN KILLED, or you owe some UNPAID DEBT.
The message says you have to call a number with an 809 area code for directions or further information. Call that number, and you forfeit your phone service to a foreign source. That source starts billing your local phone service for international calls. You'll end up having to pay for those calls.
This actually has happened. In 1998, I assisted the Mississippi Attorney General's investigation of several 809 area code scams that targeted about a dozen consumers all over North Mississippi. We were able to trace the originating calls to the Dominican Republic, but never to a specific person.
But the exaggeration is about the frequency of the scam. It almost never happens anymore. As far as in the Mid-South, I'm not aware of a single legitimate 809 area code scam attempt since our investigation 11 years ago.
This brings up a great resource. Anytime you get an urban legend e-mail, you can go to www.snopes.com. That is the most accurate and most legitimate resource for proving or debunking urban legends. The site has a staff that runs down every one of those annoying things.
In fact, here's snopes.com's listing about the 809 area code scam: