Strong measures as ComReg counters modem hijacking

21 Sep 2004

In what it calls an “exceptional” measure, the Commission for Communications regulation (ComReg) will compel telephone providers and internet service providers (ISPs) to block long-distance calls to certain destinations in a bid to stop modem hijacking, an issue that is affecting a growing number of dial-up internet users in Ireland.

Modem hijacking or auto-dialling occurs when users unknowingly download a piece of software which then changes their dial-up settings to call foreign destinations at great expense – far higher than regular call charges for using the internet in Ireland. This often takes place without the user realising and they become aware of the problem only after receiving their phone bills.

ComReg moved to act because of the scale of the problem and the level of charges being incurred by some users. There have been reported costs of up to €2,000 because of modem hijacking and in one exceptional case, the bill was as high as €12,000.

In another element of its decision, Irish ISPs are being required by ComReg to recommend to their customers free or low-cost hardware or software that can remove autodialler software, prevent it from working or block it from being installed in the future.

The regulator issued its recommendations following a consultation process, having seen the situation steadily worsen throughout the year. Between January and July, ComReg received 200 complaints about modem hijacking and since then a further 131 consumers have contacted its office about the same problem.

Introducing the decision notice, ComReg chairman John Doherty acknowledged that the ISP industry currently employs several security measures without which the scale of the problem for consumers could be considerably worse. He said, however, that “the difficulties and the hardship for consumers who fall victim to the scam continue”.

“Throughout the discussions, ComReg has continually sought for the industry to come forward with robust solutions, which would ensure the protection of consumers. Regretfully it has not been possible to arrive at what we consider to be an appropriate solution and therefore in interests of consumers ComReg is forced to take some unusual and exceptional measures,” said Doherty.

ComReg is informing telecoms operators that from 4 October they must suspend direct dial access to 13 destinations. The full list is: Norfolk Island (country code 00 672), Sao Tome and Principe (00 239), Cook Islands (00 682), Tokelau (00 690), Diego Garcia (00 246), Wallis and Futuna (00 681), Nauru (00 674), Tuvalu (00 688), Comoros (00 269), Kiribati (00 686), Solomon Islands (00 677), Mauritiana (00 222) and French Polynesia (00 689).

The list will be reviewed on a regular basis by ComReg and the network operators and amended appropriately in response to any significant changes to so-called “problem destinations”. A customer can contact their operator for direct dial access to specific telephone numbers within any of the blocked destinations, provided that the network operator has verified that the requested telephone number is a voice-only service.

In another element to the decision notice, providers of publicly available telephone services must not charge any subscriber for direct dial calls to any of the destinations listed in the Appendix B unless the call invoiced was to a number that has been unbarred because of a customer request. Both of these requirements will operate for a six-month period from the date of the decision notice. “We will review it after that and if further adjustments are needed we will consider taking them,” said a ComReg spokesman.

By Gordon Smith