by Jennifer Pritchett
and P.J. Harston
Northern News Services

Other developments
Phone fraud suspect confused
Caught up in long-distance charges

NNSL (Feb 03/97) - RCMP and NorthwesTel officials say they have "no idea" how many people used a flaw in their system to make free calls all over the world.

They don't even know how long it's been going on.

"It's just a big crapshoot," said NorthwesTel security manager Harry Dewindt. "We have absolutely no record of any of the calls (prior to Jan. 3) so it could be in the trillions."

And the $10- to $11-million figure the RCMP have bandied about is arbitrary, said Dewindt. "We honestly don't know."

Just 22 people in Inuvik and Yellowknife were charged in last month's telecommunications theft bust, the largest ever in the NWT.

And of those 22, police say only a handful had any equipment or physical evidence that police seized to use against them in court.

In fact, an experiment carried out by News/North late Thursday night found that anyone in Yellowknife or Inuvik who had long-distance call-blocking as part of their phone service could have called anywhere outside of North America, for free.

"It probably started out with one person finding the flaw and he told someone else, and it went in a pyramid from there," Dewindt said in an interview, Friday.

Using a telephone equipped with NorthwesTel's long-distance call blocking service, we dialed a number in Stockholm, Sweden, and got through with no problem -- using no added technology and no secret codes.

The call was made following directions found in the NorthwesTel's directory for making operator-assisted overseas calls.

Dewindt said that as of noon Friday, that flaw had been fixed.

In an RCMP news conference last week, however, police suggested the individuals charged in the estimated $11-million fraud used special equipment and secret codes.

"... in all of these cases, by utilizing a three-way phone, which was also ordered by the phone company and by dialing a series of numbers while dialing the overseas number, the suspects were able to bypass the normal billing route, the operators and obtain direct access to the overseas telephone lines," police said.

RCMP Sgt. Dave Grundy said "some miscommunication" may have resulted in the impression that all the people charged with the theft were using special equipment.

"When we began the investigation we found that lots and lots of calls had been made this way, but we targeted only those making a high volume of calls," Grundy said Friday.

"Some had made one or two calls -- all over the world and by people of all nationalities -- and I'm not saying they won't be spoken to or addressed at a later date, but we certainly didn't arrest everyone who made phone calls this way."

Police say NorthwesTel technicians discovered what they believed to be a theft during a routine check on Jan. 2.

Police, meanwhile, say a systems check of the long-distance overseas calls was made and suspect phones traced and identified.

Calls that were made from these phones were secretly recorded for billing purposes by the phone company.

On Jan. 23, RCMP raided 12 Yellowknife residences, searched them for related evidence, and arrested some 20 people. Twelve were held overnight for questioning and charged with theft.

Ten were also charged in Inuvik.

RCMP say they have computer records that link these individuals with the crimes, but won't elaborate on other evidence.

Those charged are scheduled to appear in court in their respective communities sometime in March.