Wake-up call on premium-rate telephone scams

So you go on the internet, kill that annoying pop-up box, and before you know it, you're paying up to £100 for a phone call you never made. Sam Dunn reports
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The Independent Online

Most of us will have opened a phone bill that raised our eyebrows. But one including a £100 call to a premium-rate number? That's more likely to cause panic. Throw in a drawn-out and often tortuous process to get your money back, with no guarantee of success, and you have the world of "rogue diallers" - scam operations that are leaving thousands of consumers out of pocket.

Most of us will have opened a phone bill that raised our eyebrows. But one including a £100 call to a premium-rate number? That's more likely to cause panic. Throw in a drawn-out and often tortuous process to get your money back, with no guarantee of success, and you have the world of "rogue diallers" - scam operations that are leaving thousands of consumers out of pocket.

The rise of premium- rate rogue dialling, a stealth menace that infiltrates your computer via your telephone landline and only makes itself known when you see your bill, has prompted telecoms companies to put customers on red alert.

Last week, BT revealed how its new "alert" software was warning more than 300 people a day that such a call was being made on their computer, with charges as high as £1.50 a minute. It has seen some 80,000 victims in the past 12 months alone.

Although cable companies such as Telewest report far fewer incidences, they too have begun to educate customers about rogue diallers. In many cases, they now call up individuals if they spot unusual phone-call patterns.

The scam's nature makes it particularly perplexing for consumers. The victims are customers logging on to the web using a dial-up internet connection via their home-phone landline.

When a screen pop-up advert appears - most often for adult entertainment, competitions or ringtone downloads - most users' natural reaction is to click the "no" option or simply close it down.

This innocent action, however, can set off the premium-rate number. Then, without your knowledge, you are disconnected from your usual internet service provider (ISP) and reconnected to the web via the premium number instead - at great expense - until you shut down.

Worse, this number can then stay in your PC or laptop and be dialled up the next time you log on.

Only when users can't get on to the web and check to see if their ISP number has changed do they realise the premium number is there. They must then switch it back manually to the ISP.

After all this comes the problem of trying to recoup the cost of these rogue calls. When people first ring their phone firm to express outrage over the high charges for their "phantom" phone calls, the likely response is that, before they do anything else, they will have to pay their bill regardless.

This initial impasse is down to the charging arrangements between the consumer, the network provider (such as BT) and the premium-rate firm.

Because that premium number (whether rogue or genuinely requested) has to be paid for straight away, the cost is racked up on your account immediately - even if you only learn about it when the bill lands on your doormat.

So if you make a stand and refuse to pay your phone company, you will be breaking your contract - and will probably find yourself in conflict with it as well as with the premium-rate firm.

To get your money back, you will be told by your network provider that it's up to you to pursue redress. You can do this through the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services (Icstis), the body that regulates the premium- rate number industry.

Passing Icstis the offending number that has appeared on your bill - prefixed with 090 if it's UK-based or 00 from overseas - will let it check to see if other consumers have also been affected.

If it has already logged that number in a database, it will have contact details for the company. You will then have to go after it yourself, explaining why the charge has been wrongly made.

This might seem a desperate roll of the dice, given that the firm probably acted deviously in the first place to charge you. But it's the only way, at the moment, of trying to get your money back.

However, Catherine Bell, spokeswoman for Icstis, reckons there is a decent chance of success. "There can often be a genuine glitch, such as the [premium number] software simply failing [and charging you]."

Others are less convinced. "This is about opportunism," says Oliver Pawley of consumer body Which?. "And because these rogue diallers don't have the technology to attack computers via broadband, it's the older people who stick with dial-up and those who aren't so technologically ahead who will suffer most."

If Icstis doesn't have the number on its data- base, it will investigate on your behalf. If the committee finds the company guilty of breaking its code of conduct, it can fine it and order you to be refunded. But this process can take up to 20 weeks.

Icstis is busy, though. Between October and December 2004, it adjudi- cated on 32 cases of rogue services, and all were found to be breaching its code of practice in some way.

Happily, regulation is tightening with the imposition shortly of a new 30-day rule under which payment to premium-rate firms will be withheld until the customer has had a chance to see his bill.

And soon the Department of Trade and Industry will be announcing a heavier fine to act as a big stick with which to beat these companies.

You can also take precautions yourself by barring all premium-rate numbers from your phone, though you may have to pay a monthly fee (BT charges £1.75), and using a PIN to make any genuine premium calls.

It will also be worth investing in some "anti-spy" software for your computer, says Mr Pawley, but check with the supplier that it covers rogue diallers.

Contact: the Icstis helpline on 0800 500212 or www.icstis.org.uk

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