Ireland launches phone fraud crackdown

Regulators are trying to prevent scams caused by software that computer users may not even know is on their PCs.

In an effort to stop scams that cause unwitting Internet users to get charged premium rates for calls placed by software surreptitiously installed on their PCs, Ireland is going to block outgoing calls to 13 countries.

These scams are caused by dialers, software programs that people sometimes download onto their computers for paid-access Web sites such as porn and gambling sites. It appears, however, that dialers are sometimes installed without users' knowledge. Then the dialers automatically call premium-rate phone numbers, running up big bills that people don't find out about until after the fact.

Now Ireland's Commission for Communications Regulation, or ComReg, has blacklisted a number of countries, mostly located in the South Pacific, known for harboring the dialer scammers.

The scams came to prominence earlier this year, when Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS), the agency that regulates premium-rate calling in the United Kingdom, published figures showing that the number of victims of the rogue dialers had increased dramatically. The National Hi-Tech Crime Unit was called in to investigate.

British telecommunications giant BT subsequently decided to block a series of premium-rate numbers often used by the scammers, but ComReg has decided to go one step further.

ComReg Chairman John Doherty said in a report that the commission had been forced to take more extreme measures after it failed to find a solution in collaboration with the telecommunications industry.

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

For the moment, direct dialing to the 13 countries will be banned, but an individual number can be white-listed, as long as it is a voice-only number.

Telcommunications service providers can opt out of the ban on direct dialing to the blacklisted countries, but they will then have to cover the bills of any dialer victims.

Internet service providers will also be obliged to let their customers know about the dialer scam and how to protect themselves against it.

The 13 blocked countries are Comoros, Cook Islands, Diego Garcia, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Mauritania, Nauru, Norfolk Island, Sao Tome and Principe, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Wallis and Futuna. The commission is considering adding Papua New Guinea to the list.

Jo Best of reported from London.

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