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Last Updated: Friday, 23 July, 2004, 09:01 GMT 10:01 UK
Calling time on rogue diallers
Why was action on internet dialling fraud not taken before it became a widespread problem, asks technology analyst Bill Thompson?

Hand on keyboard
Rogue diallers can install themselves without your permission
I have not used a modem to connect to the internet for months.

I have broadband at home, and when I am out and about so many places now offer wireless connections that searching for a phone line to plug into is rarely necessary.

Even my sister now has a wireless network so I can get online easily when I visit her.

This is just as well, because otherwise I would be worried every time I connected to the net in case my computer was secretly running a rogue dialler program.

These malicious bits of code sit there until you connect to your usual ISP and then silently disconnect you and phone a premium rate number instead.

You still get internet connectivity, but it can cost 1.50 a minute. And you do not realise what is going on until your next phone bill arrives.

Over the past few months there has been a rash of UK-based rogue diallers and thousands of people have been fleeced.

It is particularly nasty because your phone company will insist you pay, since you made the calls.

Money machine

The idea of using a premium rate phone line to let people pay for content they want to download has been around for years.

Bill Thompson
Anyone who wants to register a UK premium rate number to be used by a dialler will now have to make sure that it is clear to users what they are getting into
It was one of the sillier proposals put forward by newspaper and magazine publishers in the early days of the net when they were trying to figure out how to make money from online media.

It never seemed likely to become mainstream, but it is now used by pornography sites as an alternative to asking people to give out credit card details.

Of course, now that we are all moving to broadband and may not even have dial-up modems in our computers, it is not going anywhere.

But the technology is out there, and a lot of fraudsters and scam artists have taken advantage of it.

The providers persuade people to download the diallers by hiding them in other programs, or sometimes they exploit security flaws in web browsers and operating systems to install the diallers secretly.

Windows systems are the main target, and a number of known problems with Internet Explorer make it a particular favourite for the fraudsters.

It is a great idea, in the abstract. After all, why bother spreading a virus that simply damages someone's computer when you can spread a dialler that will make you thousands of pounds?

Fortunately Icstis, the UK regulator responsible for premium rate services, is finally doing something about this.

Slow to act?

Anyone who wants to register a UK premium rate number to be used by a dialler will now have to make sure that it is clear to users what they are getting into.

Results of spy audit on PC
Software programs can help root out rogue diallers
They will also have to make it easy to uninstall, and be more open about charging.

This will go some way to solving the problem, but it is not nearly enough.

For one thing, it will not stop the scams that use international numbers, rather than UK-based 091 numbers, since they are not regulated by Icstis.

And it will not get the money back for the people who have already been sent inflated phone bills.

But what is really depressing is how long it has taken the regulator to act when this sort of fraud has been around for years.

I can remember it being discussed on mailing lists in late 90s when dial-up access was only just starting. Yet even though it is a well-known scam, the regulators and the phone companies did nothing about it until a rash of well-publicised cases.

Protect the consumer

One of the reasons we have these regulators in place is so that they can look out for the public interest.

It was clear that rogue phone dialling programs were out there and that they were going to be downloaded and used by people in the UK.

Yet nothing was done until far too late, and even the steps that have been taken will not protect us completely.

I do not expect the people at Icstis or the phone companies to be perfect, but this is one area where it would have been reasonable to expect action before too many people were defrauded.

All it takes is a little bit of common sense and an awareness of the way the internet works, but that seems to be lacking here.

We need regulators who will spot the problems and warn us of them, who are able to prepare rules and laws that will help us to avoid crises, and who can take pre-emptive action where it was justified.

Regulating the use of premium rate services for dial-up should have been done years ago.

We have all been let down here, and those who have lost money have been badly served by a system that seems more concerned with helping companies rake in the cash than protecting the consumer.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.


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