Fraud Strikes University Phone Lines

False Charges to Administrative Offices Reached `Crescendo' This Summer

A nationwide rash of telephone fraud has struck Harvard, running up phone bills--and headaches--for administrative offices all over the University, the Office of Information Technology (OIT) said yesterday.

According to Nancy M. Kinchla, OIT's manager of planning and administration for the network services division, the problems at Harvard appear to stem entirely from collect calls made to administration numbers and then transferred to outside phone lines.

"It's been reaching a crescendo. Last summer it was the highest it's ever been. We've gotten hundreds of calls," she said.

Kinchla said that the fraud has hit the University the hardest in the last six months to a year.

The culprits, said Kinchla, call from institutions, such as jails, that normally do not accept credit charges. The callers pretend that they have a legitimate need for a quick connection to an outside operator.


"They say they are a New England Telephone technician...and tell [Harvard employees] they will be testing the line and other people will be calling," she said. "A couple of people have impersonated doctors at Harvard, or professors. They create some type of emergency and people connect them without thinking."

When the callers are connected outside through the University phone lines, the calls appear to come from Harvard, said Kinchla. The callers ask the operators to place the calls, often to international numbers, and the bill is charged to Harvard.

Since students cannot transfer phone calls using student telephone lines, the fraud seems to be limited to administrative offices. The total cost to the University "in not huge, but it can be large to the poor department on the bill," said Kinchla.

New England Telephone has refunded all the money lost to the University, and is attempting to solve the problem, Kinchla said. The only way to stop fraud completely would be to block all collect calls, she said, but legitimate collect callers would be cut off as well. Currently, the company is working on blocking specific institutional numbers from the University phone lines.

In the meantime, many departments will continue to receive bogus calls. "I can't think of one school that hasn't been called--the Business School, the Kennedy School, the Medical School," said Kinchla. "It's happening not just at Harvard, but everywhere. I can't think of one of our [contacts] that hasn't been hit," she said.

Kinchla added that she has been hearing reports of such fraud all over the country for the past few years.

The Law School has been the target of some of those calls, said Jack T. Mason, who handles phone charges at the Law School. Mason says the school has not been inundated with phony calls but has received its share.

"Generally we get someone pretending to be a professor calling collect. One time they said they were Professor Goldberg," he said.

However, Mason said it may be more difficult to block fraudulent calls from the Law School, which sometimes receives legitimate calls from prison inmates who are being represented by Law School faculty members or students.

"No one's really made it a big concern here," said Mason. "I don't think it's been outrageous."