Area code scams play off people's ignorance of the growing proliferation of different telephone area codes. The con artist starts by contacting you, either by leaving a message on your answering machine, by sending you email, or by paging you. The goal of the message is to get you to call a telephone number in another area code by claiming that you won a fabulous prize in a contest, that your credit card was wrongly charged so you need to call and correct the matter, or that one of your relatives has died, been arrested, or fallen ill.
The moment you call the phone number, you may be put on hold, directed to a long-winded recorded message, or put in touch with someone who claims to speak broken English. In any event, the person on the other end simply tries to keep you on the phone as long as possible because (surprise!) the phone number has a "pay-per-call" area code (much like 900 numbers) where you (the caller) ring up astronomical charges, which can amount to as much as $25 per minute!
The most common area code used in the scam is the 809 area code, which is actually located in the Caribbean, so the scammer can avoid any American laws warning you of the charge, the rate involved, and a time period during which you may terminate the call without being charged. And, since you don't need to dial an international code to reach the number (you simply dial 1-809 and the number), most people won't realize that they're making an international call.
Area code scams are extremely hard to prosecute. Because you actually did make the call, neither your local phone company nor your long distance carrier will likely help you or drop the charges, because they are simply providing the billing for the foreign phone company.
To avoid this scam, be careful when returning unknown phone calls with a different area code. To help you locate other area codes located in the Caribbean, visit the LincMad website (http://www.lincmad.com/caribbean.html). To learn about all the area codes around the world, visit the North American Numbering Plan Administration website (http://www.nanpa.com/area_codes/index.html). To learn more about the 809 scam, visit your favorite search engine and look for the phrase "809 fraud" or "809 scam."