The perils of modem living


27 Jul 2005

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In spite of an extensive awareness campaign last year that highlighted the problem of modem hijacking, among other security issues, it is still with us. This much became very clear when BT Ireland last month launched a free software tool to prevent modem hijacking, which is a type of online fraud that can result in people receiving higher than usual telephone bills.

Modem hijacker programs, also known as rogue diallers or autodiallers, only affect people who access the internet via a dial-up connection. Typically, they unknowingly download a piece of software that then changes the dial-up settings on their modems to call foreign destinations or premium-rate numbers at great expense.

According to the latest available figures, there could be between 60 and 80 such incidents every month. Eircom Net, one of the State’s largest internet service provider (ISP), confirms it receives on average 30 reports per month. The company says it monitors internet traffic for unusual patterns that could be associated with modem hijacking and if an incident is detected, Eircom Net contacts the customers and attempts to block the number. Although the ISP has not developed its own software, its website contains links to download eight third-party programs with similar features. A spokesperson for BT Ireland says the company was receiving on average 50 reports every month about modem hijacking.

The Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) confirmed it was receiving 60 queries a month about autodiallers and the organisation refers complainants to their service providers. A ComReg spokesperson adds: “Anyone who is an innocent or inadvertent victim of autodialler fraud will be refunded.”

According to BT Ireland there are close to 330,000 home users and 70,000 business customers still on dial-up internet services in the State and they could potentially be affected by the problem. As a result it launched BT Modem Protection, a free software download that stops a computer’s modem from dialling high-cost premium rate or international numbers, even if rogue dialler software is on the machine.

BT Modem Protection is available to all Irish internet users, whether they are BT customers or not. It can be downloaded from www.btireland.ie/modem protection. The software is already available in the UK and Northern Ireland, and BT says that up to 2,000 customers a day have downloaded the free online tool. In Northern Ireland, where BT is the incumbent telecoms provider, the number of reported incidents dropped from 500 to 60 since the software was introduced.

BT Modem Protection alerts users if their dial-up modem begins to call any number other than a list of approved numbers, such as their ISP’s national call or freefone access number.
This type of fraud often takes place unknown to the user and they become aware of the problem only after receiving their phone bills. Scammers take a profit from the cost of the call. One BT Ireland customer is understood to have incurred a bill of €1,000 in just three days. Last year one business received a phone bill to the tune of €12,000 as a result of the fraud.

The issue first came to prominence last year and reached a stage where ComReg briefly barred all phone calls to 13 overseas destinations. The telecoms regulator subsequently rolled back its decision, which had caused much controversy. ComReg said at the time that telecoms operators and ISPs were conforming to a code of practice including sharing information with each other and putting in place protection measures for consumers.

In a statement issued by BT, ComReg commissioner Mike Byrne says the initiative has been successful in reducing instances of the problem. He adds that continued vigilance is necessary and that consumer awareness is also important in guarding against the problem.

Damien Mulley, chairman of the consumer telecoms lobby group IrelandOffline, welcomes BT’s initiative. “There have been a lot of people in Ireland affected by this, so any endeavour by any ISP or telco to prevent customers from being ripped off is a good thing,” he tells siliconrepublic.com.

However, he expresses his disappointment that the number of dial-up internet users in Ireland remains so high. “In the UK, there are more broadband users than dial-up users; it’s the same in the US,” he says. “Here in Ireland, there are 400,000 dial-up users and around 140,000 broadband users.”

By Gordon Smith