Long Distance Fraud Again – Really?

I’ve been helping clients get into and stay in the long distance business since the 80’s when long distance was a new line of business for many telcos. I remember when the industry was new that it was a challenge. If you were a rural LEC you had to convince the RBOC who owned the regional tandem switch to help you set up a trunk group to get to a long distance company. And they were reluctant and slow to respond. So a company had to fight to get into the long distance business.

But over time it got easier and fairly routine and most rural telephone companies added long distance as a product line. It worked pretty well until the time in the early 90’s when calling cards became the rage and customers all wanted them. With a calling card a customer could make a long distance call from any other phone and bill it to their own home phone number.

So companies in the long distance business started giving out calling cards, and eventually they gave a calling card to every customer. This generated a lot of new traffic, and since this was back in the day when it still was not unusual to pay 10¢ to 15¢ per minute for long distance it also drove a lot of new revenue. But within a few years after calling cards were introduced calling card fraud followed. Calling card fraud was pretty straight forward. There were people who would try to find a valid calling card number that they would then send to places like the Middle East where street vendors would hawk cheap minutes. And dozens or even hundreds of people would use the calling card until somebody figured out that fraud was going on and cut off the card.

When the fraud first started the losses got huge because nobody was looking for it. But over time the carriers that sold the long distance began monitoring for unusual usage and policies were established such as making the cards only good for domestic calling, and over time the big calling card fraud got under control, but never quite stopped.

Over the years since then I have run across cases of fraud, but it has been a random thing here and there and not widespread like the calling card fraud had once been. The companies that sold wholesale long distance got more sophisticated and monitored usage closely and for the most part the industry stopped worrying about fraud.

But recently I have seen cases of significant fraud happening again to my clients. Within recent months I have had two clients hit for over $25,000 in fraud in a single month, which in both cases was as much as they had been paying for wholesale long distance for most of a year. So for these companies this was a really big deal and it effectively doubled their cost of buying long distance for the year.

And both of these companies were buying long distance from ‘big name’ carriers and not from some small VoIP provider. I must tell you that I was surprised. Not surprised that fraud could still happen, but surprised that the big company selling the long distance did not have a fraud monitoring process in place to stop it. It’s not that hard to monitor for fraud at the large carrier level. If they process the long distance in real-time it is not hard to set some flags to look for unusual usage. When my clients decided to buy wholesale long distance from these vendors they were assured that those carriers had fraud monitoring. It turns out to not to be true.

The fraud in both of these cases was allowed due to faulty connections between my clients and their customer. In one case if was my client’s own connection that was not secure. They had installed an IAD (Integrated Access Device) at a business customer in order to supply voice and data from their fiber connection. The IAD was not properly configured and had very weak passwords and was not configured to only accept commands from my client.

The second case was similar in that another client had a connection to a customer PBX. And of course, being a full service provider, they made the connection for the customer to his PBX. As it turns out there was a backdoor connection available into the PBX into the internet, which means that the PBX could have a connection from somewhere other than my client.

Neither of those problems automatically leads to fraud, but there is a new set of bad guys in the world. They use computer worms to test against millions of phone numbers looking for phone numbers connected to PBXs or IADs. Once they find such a device they use normal hacking techniques like cracking easy passwords to gain access to the device. They then sell calling in the same way as was done in the old days of calling card fraud. In one of these cases the calling went to the Middle East and in the other went to INTELSAT calling to satellite phones – both very expensive calling. My suspicion is that these bad guys are not selling these minutes on the street like in the past, but instead hawking cheap minutes to International VoIP minute sellers who have no idea where these minutes come from.

Certainly my clients had some liability in their loss since they contributed to the customer connection being made in an insecure manner. But they also ought to be able to rely on their underlying long distance provider to protect them against a flurry of suspicious calls. The biggest worry about this new kind of fraud is that it pumps a large volume of calling to expensive places in a short period of time. So it can cost a telco a large amount of money in a hurry.

So my caution to companies that sell long distance is to beware. It has been a while since fraud was of this level of concern, but it’s back again. There are two steps you can take to protect yourself. First, make absolutely certain that the company you are buying long distance from has good fraud detection and policies. You want a carrier who will not only find the fraud but who will cut off the calling before they even contact you. But second, the responsibility rests with you to use good network practices to make sure it is hard for somebody to hack the connections to your customers. If you want to know more about how to protect yourself contact Derrel Duplechin of CCG at (337) 654-7490.

Advantages to Customers of SIP Trunking

SIP stands for Session Initiation Protocol and is a technology at the enterprise level for delivering multiple voice connections to a PBX or key system over an IP data connection. In order for a business to utilize SIP they must have a PBX with a SIP-enabled trunk side and their data provider must be able to deploy and switch SIP.

Hot Desk, GTi, University of Glamorgan

Hot Desk, GTi, University of Glamorgan (Photo credit: jisc_infonet)

SIP Trunks at the enterprise level of the network replace PRIs between the central office and PBXs. A PRI is a dedicated T-1 transport circuit and can support 23 bearer paths for voice, but a SIP trunk connection typically rides an existing data circuit and can be used to carve out as many voice paths as are wanted within the limits of the bandwidth available.

Following are the reasons that businesses want SIP trunks, and thus for carriers to sell them. This list is discusses the advantages for the small and medium business customer.

Saves Money. SIP generally saves money. SIP trunks replace PRIs which are inefficient. It is not unusual for a customer with a PRI to be using only part of the capacity and yet they have to pay for it all since it is a linear product. SIP trunks are typically carved out of a company’s data or Internet connection and can be sized as needed within the constraints of the bandwidth. It is typical for a business to cut their costs at least in half using SIP trunks compared to PRIs due to the efficiency.

More Efficient Use of the Data Connection. Most businesses will already have an Internet connection and SIP trunks are carved from those connections. Most businesses use their data connections in a bursty fashion, meaning there are times of the day when they use a lot of their bandwidth, but also many times when they use very little. SIP trunking can take advantage of the unused capacity in most company data connections. Companies often do not need to increase the bandwidth they are buy SIP trunks and can fit them into their existing data product.

Enables Unified Communication. SIP enables all of the various features that comprise unified communications such as access to the phone system from cell phones or tablets, integrated voicemail and email, video chat, instant messaging and other features that make businesses more productive.

Enables Upgrade to an IP PBX. Businesses more and more want the kinds of features that are available with an IP PBX and IP handsets. Many businesses are choosing to buy an IP PBX to get these features rather than buy IP Centrex from their telco provider. The general advantage for a business to have their own IP PBX is the ability to customize their communications network, something that many service providers do not offer with IP Centrex.

Allows Multiple Locations to Act like One. With SIP trunks and an IP PBX a business with more than one location can have a unified telephone system that brings the data and voice together for all locations.

Any carrier that sells enterprise data service to businesses should offer SIP trunks. Even if you sell IP Centrex, customers who prefer to have their own phone system are going to want SIP trunks.

Hosted IP Centrex Service

In a few other blogs I have referred to IP Centrex as a new service for businesses, so I thought I ought to explain the service. Hosted IP Centrex service uses data-centric phone sets to replaces key system, PBX system or existing Centrex service. The IP Centrex phones can be controlled by a softswitch or by connecting an IP PBX to a legacy switch.

A number of CCG’s clients are having success selling IP Centrex to business customers. The product includes the best features of a large PBX plus many additional “value added” services that are only available through IP based phone service. The product can be integrated with a subscriber’s computer systems to provide such features as dialing from Outlook, common databases for all employees, etc.

There is a wide range of phone sets available that include a screen that allows a caller to manage their calling. The product requires a customer to buy new IP handsets and many of my clients lease sets as part of the price.

This product has a large potential market since it can be tailored for the very small or very large business. It is easy for the carrier or the subscriber to customize features for each phone or for the whole system.

There are a number of benefits of this product to both the carrier and to subscribers. Some of the biggest advantages:

Benefits to the Carrier

  1. Can be sold to any business subscriber regardless of what service they had before. It’s a good replacement for B1’s, trunks or traditional Centrex.
  2. Subscribers become stickier to the extent you can get them hooked on custom features not available elsewhere.
  3. Allows a carrier to sell service outside your traditional footprint. You just need to find businesses that have a decent high-speed data connection. This also means you can sell voice services to all branches of a customer’s business and not just to those in your footprint.
  4. It promotes the Company’s data products and is easily bundled with data.
  5. The product has a lot of pricing flexibility and can be sold to compete with multiple B1’s or traditional Centrex. You should be able to profitably beat the price of any traditional phone product.

Benefits to Business Subscribers

  1. The Subscribers get a telephone system that equals the features of a high-end PBX.
  2. The Subscriber no longer needs to buy or maintain a PBX. The customer can buy the IP phones or lease them from you.
  3. Subscribers can portray a unified professional image to the public. Employees at remote locations can be integrated into the telephone system. And small companies can act like bigger companies by the use of the various features. Remote employees can be made to feel like a part of the Company.
  4. Subscribers can tailor the phone system and each phone to meet their needs. There are hundreds of features available including many that were not available on analog systems.
  5. Subscribers can easily manage the features available on each set using the Subscriber portal that allows for easy and immediate changes to the features on any or all phones.
  6. Phones are portable and an employee can quickly move their phone from desk to desk or office to office and keep the same extension, voice mail and features.
  7. Phones can be programmed to be nomadic (portable, but not mobile). This means that an employee can take the phone out of the office and work at home or in a hotel as if they were in the office.  All features and functions of the phone remain unchanged.

HD Voice

A spectrogram (0-5000 Hz) of the sentence &quo...

A spectrogram (0-5000 Hz) of the sentence “it’s all Greek to me” spoken by a female voice (Image:en-us-it’s_all_Greek_to_me.ogg). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

HD voice (or wideband audio) is a technology that delivers the full frequency range of the human voice.  Traditional telephony has delivered a narrowband voice transmission and only transmitted sounds between 300 Hz and 3.4 kHz. However, the human voice extends between 80 Hz and 14 kHz, so traditional telephone has chopped off parts of every voice transmission.

The range of frequency was curtailed for traditional telephony based upon the limited bandwidth available for transmitting voice calls over a twisted copper pair. But voice that is sent over an IP path does not have those limitations and can send the full range of the human voice.

There has been an industry standard for wideband voice since 1987. However, until recently the only uses of the standard were in high-end video conferencing systems and for transmitting sports announcers back to the home station for rebroadcast.

But the industry is starting to use the HD voice protocol for calls made over VoIP. For example, Skype and some other PC-to-PC voice providers use the full HD voice bandwidth and the higher quality of the call can be experienced by a caller using a high-quality headset or handset. These same calls don’t sound better when listened to on a standard phone due to limitations in the speakers. There are also a number of vendors offering wideband telephones such as Avaya, Cisco, Grandstream, Gigaset, Polycom and others. These sets are capable of both sending and receiving a wideband voice signal, but the phones at both ends must be wideband capable to engage in an HD quality call.

So what are the business opportunities with HD Voice? Businesses are interested in having high-quality calls, particularly in conference rooms, noisy areas and other places where the quality can make a difference. The business opportunity is to make the phones available to businesses that are served with IP voice paths. HD Voice can then be sold as an add-on feature or as a more expensive voice line. A company that wants the higher quality calling is a great candidate for moving off of traditional TDM services onto VoIP, IP Centrex or other IP voice solution.

Launching a New Product

At CCG we often introduce clients to new products. Historically our clients had the leisure to introduce products slowly since they were not operating in highly competitive markets. However, today we see speed to market being a major factor in being successful. Since there are many steps needed to launch a new product and because it will touch every part of your organization, it is mandatory that you are organized and have a plan to develop and launch a complex product on time and do it well. Lack of organization will inevitably lead to delays, or worse, to a product that is half-baked and full of problems.

At CCG we are experts at the process of launching new products and many of our clients now include CCG as part of the new product development and launch team. We can provide the needed discipline and the extra manpower and expertise needed to insure that a product is launched on time and is customer-ready.

The following (using the example of launching IP Centrex) is  a list of the basic steps required to launch a new product. This list is abbreviated but demonstrates how launching a new product will touch every part of your organization. Without a clear plan it is easy to get bogged down and delayed.

Steps needed to launch IP Centrex

Define the Product. Define the specific market for the product. In the case of IP Centrex, should you have different packages to reach different parts of the market? (For instance there might be a version for typical small business, a more complex product for more businesses like doctor’s offices, and a product for businesses with a centralized receptionist). Define the equipment and software needed to launch the product. What kind of handsets / functionality do you want to offer? Will you let subscribers use their own devices like smart phones and tablets? Will you support integration of phones and computer systems (Outlook, etc,)? Will you be supporting 911 portability (supporting 911 when the customer moves the phone off-premises)?

Determine Technical Readiness. Is your switch ready to support the product or do you need an upgrade? Will your OSS/BSS support the new product’s billing and operational requirements? If you are going to launch using something other than a softswitch, take the steps needed to choose the right gear and/or partner. Find a 911 mobility vendor to support remote 911 if you go this route. How are you willing to distribute the product – over your own network, over leased facilities, or over the open internet. Anticipate and address any IP addressing issues. Analyze the customer premise network requirements –  premise wiring alternatives, customer demarcation points, VoIP quality assurance capabilities, etc.

Product Pricing. Create a name and branding for the product. Determine the market prices of competing products (trunks for existing PBXs, B1s, traditional Centrex, other VoIP providers, etc.). Determine your pricing strategy (one price fits all vs. pricing based upon what the subscriber is using today). Determine your pricing elements (individual service elements like stations, talk paths, features and calling plans or a more all-inclusive element). Determine if you are going to sell and/or lease handsets as part of the product. Will this be bundled with other products like data or long distance?

Testing. Buy test handsets/stations. Activate and then test each switch feature with the handsets. Create a common or custom profile configuration for supported and chosen handset types. Make sure that you have an easy way to load the profile configurations into handsets/stations. Make sure the chosen features will work with each other (a common problem when combining multiple complex features). Test OSS and billing system.

Regulatory. Are tariff updates needed? If you are going into new markets will you need to open new 911 PSAPs? If sold as a regulated product, how does SLC charge apply? Are there any CALEA issues?

Sales and Marketing Readiness. Define the value proposition for the subscriber. Develop marketing literature. Update website. Develop order form that will capture the complexities of the product.

Internal Training. Train salespeople and CSRs on how to use the product. Train help-desk staff. Train anybody who will install or train on the product. Should your own company be the first test customer?

Customer Training. Develop customer training material/manuals.  Consider a web tool andor video tool. Develop training plan. Will you train every employee or train the trainers? How much will you charge for training? How do future subscriber employees get trained?

Implementation. Develop installation plan/checklist. Order IP stations. Perform any customer premise network changes required. Install and verify data connection(s). Install stations and any managed network equipment required. Develop plan to verify that every station is updated and provisioned correctly. Conduct subscriber training sessions. Ask for subscriber feedback on the quality of the implementation. Render and verify first bill.

NOC/Customer Support/Troubleshooting. How will you handle customer support? Will the first level of trouble shooting be done at the CSR level or by specially trained individuals? Who will have access to the tools and training required to assist subscribers?  Will billing issues and technical issues be handled by different employees or by the same employees?

Ongoing Product Maintenance. How do you stay abreast of new features, services and apps that may benefit your subscribers?  How and when do you introduce updates to subscribers?