CLEVELAND -- A visitor from Israel rented apartments in Ohio last summer and set up a telephone exchange that placed more than 5,000 calls between Israel and Arab countries without paying the bill, authorities say.
It is not an isolated case. Schemes to bypass Israel's ban on direct telephone calls to and from some Arab countries -- and not pay for the calls -- have cheated American telephone companies out of millions of dollars, the FBI says.
Since September, three men from the Middle East have been arrested in Ohio and charged with defrauding American Telephone & Telegraph Co. Other such incidents have been discovered in Atlanta, Houston, Chicago and Paterson, N.J., according to FBI affidavits filed in the Ohio cases.
A resident of Israel's Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Mohammed Al-Masri, 32, rented an apartment in Canton last July and in one month placed 3,900 telephone calls to the Middle East, according to Ohio federal court documents.
Al-Masri vacated the apartment in August and rented another in Youngstown, where the FBI said several thousand more calls were placed. The unpaid bill amounted to $95,000.
FBI agents raided the Youngstown apartment Sept. 2 and he was found there coordinating two three-way calls. "It was noted that two of four lines were active at the initiation of the search and that the conversations were being carried on in Arabic," FBI agent Carl J. Jensen said in an affidavit.
Al-Masri pleaded guilty Oct. 18 to a mail fraud charge, stemming from avoiding long-distance phone bills, and awaits sentencing. He could receive up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Connecting calls between Arab nations and Israel is not illegal in this country. But failing to pay the bills is.
The Justice Department said Israel prohibits the direct phone calls for security reasons. Robert Hawk, spokesman for the FBI in Cleveland, said the setups did not appear to have any political associations.
The affidavit did not provide further details on the operations, such as how customers found out about the service, whether or not they made collect calls to the U.S. linkup, how much they were charged or how they paid.
In the other Ohio case, an Israeli, Mazen Abdallan Shawish, 27, and a Jordanian, Iyad Khalil Abdul Qader Labadi, 29, were arrested Dec. 29 in a Cleveland apartment and charged with wire fraud.
Federal prosecutor Tom Getz said they ran up a long-distance bill of more than $25,000. Lawyers for the men said at a Jan. 4 hearing before U.S. Magistrate David Perelman that the entire bill has been paid.
The magistrate ordered Shawish and Labadi to leave the country as a condition for the charges to be dismissed.