Trojan horse viruses send telephone bills soaring

They sneak into your computer and link you up to premium phone lines, warns James Daley

For the more than 30m people who have access to the internet at home in the UK, computer viruses are unlikely to be a stranger. As the number of web-users has continued to grow over the past few years, so too, sadly, has the number of people who devote their time to creating programmes that incapacitate, confuse or completely ruin your PC.

For the more than 30m people who have access to the internet at home in the UK, computer viruses are unlikely to be a stranger. As the number of web-users has continued to grow over the past few years, so too, sadly, has the number of people who devote their time to creating programmes that incapacitate, confuse or completely ruin your PC.

These can be a major inconvenience, but the latest breed of viruses is proving to be much more sinister, landing computer owners with hefty bills - often running into hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds.

These scams work like this. While you are browsing the web, a file will surreptitiously download itself onto your computer. Once it has installed itself, it will temporarily disconnect you from the internet and then redial, this time connecting you to a premium-rate number charged at £1.50 a minute. Once reconnected, you can often continue browsing as you were before - unaware that you are now paying a rate of £90 an hour.

The number of people affected by these so-called "Trojan horse" viruses has soared in recent months, with BT alone reporting in excess of 35,000 complaints. And for those who still pay their bills on a quarterly basis, it is often months until they realise the abnormally large charges being incurred.

In my case, it was a whopping £200 in three months, which I discovered only when I received a quarterly phone bill that was triple the normal size. In many other cases, the sums involved have been even greater.

The process of sorting out this mess is unfortunately not as simple as it should be. While "rogue diallers", as the industry refers to them, are illegal, many of the companies running these scams are based abroad, and can prove difficult to bring to justice. Your first port of call when you think you may have been a victim is to turn to Icstis, the body that regulates premium-rate numbers. Its website, www.icstis.org.uk, provides a free number-checking service which will allow you to identify the owner of the premium-rate numbers you have been calling, and to see whether Icstis is investigating them.

Once you have established who has been responsible for taking your money, you have to write a letter to the company, asking for a refund. The next stop is your phone provider. While most telephone companies, BT included, will allow you to defer payment in relation to these call charges, they will not allow you to forget about payment altogether.

Frustratingly, BT provides its customers with a glimmer of hope by saying they will not have to pay up while the offending party is being investigated. However, once the investigation is complete, it will demand payment, regardless of the outcome. Even if it is convinced you have been conned, it will give you a pat on the back, work towards ensuring that other customers are not ensnared, and ask you to cough up. If you want compensation, it says, you will have to get it from the premium-rate phone company.

Icstis is also rather toothless. In August, it took steps to ensure that all premium-rate dialler services would have to obtain a licence. Only this week, it said that it had banned 11 companies that had failed to apply for a licence.However, for those companies that have already managed to get away with the con for several months, Icstis's orders to pay fines and to refund customers can easily be ignored. With most offenders based in Europe, these companies know that there is a lot of paperwork needed for Icstis to get anywhere near them.

So far, the regulator has managed to fine and get customer refunds from eight companies. However, pinning down the rest is likely to be much trickier. In fairness to Icstis, its job is to regulate, not to prosecute for fraud. This, it says, is a matter for the police, and it insists that it is working alongside the high-tech crime unit.

Unfortunately, all this does not help those already struggling to pay huge phone bills. While the likes of BT say they cannot be held responsible for the levels of security that their customers have on their computers, it could be argued that they have a duty of care to inform customers when their bills become abnormally large.

With a little luck, the new measures being put in place by Icstis and Ofcom, the telephone regulator, will ensure that these scams are eliminated. But for those of us who have already been stung, the road to compensation may be long and tiresome.

FACT FILE: INOCULATING YOUR COMPUTER

* Get a good virus-checker. Some of the best virus software is available for as little as £20 over the internet - an invaluable investment if you are going to keep your computer clean. Make sure you keep it updated, as new viruses are constantly being created.

* Get broadband. Broadband internet connections do not allow this sort of virus. With broadband quickly falling in price, now may be the time to do away with your dial-up modem.

* Put a premium-rate block on your phone. This might be a problem if you like voting on Big Brother- type programmes, or entering TV competitions, but it will ensure that if you do contract a virus, it cannot make any costly premium-rate calls on your line.

* Get a pop-up blocker for your internet browser. Many of these viruses manifest themselves through internet pop-up screens. If you block pop-ups, you lessen the chances of being able to contract this sort of virus. Google offers a free downloadable pop-up blocker.

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