A high-tech scheme by Internet sex sites has more than a thousand Canadian Web surfers complaining that they've been duped into making long distance telephone calls, some amounting to as much as $4,400.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are currently investigating pornographic Web sites that employed a special program to surreptitiously disconnect users from their Internet service providers and redirect their calls through Moldova, a republic in the former Soviet Union. Through a tangled series of international connections, the program boomeranged calls from at least 1,200 unsuspecting Canadian users back from Moldova to a Web site in Dallas, Texas, racking up pricey long distance charges for the users in the process, according to Canadian police.
At least two Web sites--"sexygirls.com" and "erotic2000.com"--used the program to make international calls. Neither site is accessible anymore.
Although no one has been charged yet in the investigation, the scheme is reminiscent of similar efforts by "dial-a-porn" operations in the early '90s which bilked callers by failing to warn them of per-minute charges or by keeping the meter running while people sat on hold waiting for sex recordings. While the Federal Trade Commission and telephone companies cracked down on "900" and "800" number scams, many dial-a-porn operations simply switched to international phone numbers to avoid U.S. restrictions.
For-pay pornographic Web sites are widely available on the Internet, but most require that users pay for dirty pictures or video clips with credit cards. The Canadian case is unique because users were not required to submit their credit card numbers before viewing porn. Instead, the sex site made money by taking a percentage of long distance calls, calls that many users felt they were cheated into making.
Corporal Marc Gosselin, an investigator with the Montreal computer crime unit, said that "sexygirls.com" was able to convince users to download the program by saying it was required to view the pictures. Once a user configured the program, called "david7.exe," it silently disconnected them from their ISP, turned off their modem volume, and dialed Moldova. The call was then directed back to a server hosted in Dallas, Texas, and users would later be billed for a long distance call by their phone companies.
"Even when you leave the sex site, you stay connected to a long distance call," said Gosselin. "Even if you shut [your browser] down, you are still connected. The only way to get rid of the connection is to turn your modem off or reboot your computer."
Gosselin said that Canadian police alone have received 1,200 complaints from users in Quebec for telephone charges ranging from $4 to $4,400. He could not estimate how many other users from the United States or other Canadian provinces were affected. "We need to work with phone companies to understand the losses," he said.
The Canadian police are currently investigating a company based in Scarborough, Ontario, for running the "sexygirls.com" site, and Gosselin said the company could be charged with fraud. He declined to name the company. The police may also look into another Web site, "erotic2000.com," that is using the david7.exe program.
However, that site, accessed today by CNET, included a link to a disclaimer that warns users of the call to Moldova, so it's unclear whether the site can be charged with fraud. "By downloading our image viewer software, your modem will disconnect from your ISP and will be automatically reconnect to a remote site where international long distance charges to Moldova apply," the disclaimer reads.
Nevertheless, the National Fraud Information Center posted a warning about "sexygirls.com" on its Web site on Monday. The NFIC is a project of the National Consumers League and affiliated with the Federal Trade Commission. It has warned major carriers in the United States about the Molodva scheme, and plans to send out press release in the next few weeks.
"We've been receiving calls from consumers in America as well as Canadians who, when they got their phone bills, discovered these huge international phone charges," Susan Grant, the director of the NFIC said today. "If the perpetrator is located in another country and their records and bank accounts are in a another country, it's very difficult for the U.S. to take the normal legal steps."
Today, a U.S. software company, Solid Oak Software, said that its $39.95 CyberSitter filtering program could block users from entering the sex sites in the first place.