America Online received up to 20,000 complaints about the scheme, and the Federal Trade Commission is investigating to find out the total number of consumers affected and to identify the alleged perpetrators.
According to the FTC, numerous consumers received an unsolicited email message stating that their "order" for sexually explicit material had been processed and that their credit cards would be charged $250 to $899. The confused Net users were advised to contact a "representative" at a telephone number in the "767" area code if they had any questions. But many didn't realize they were calling Roseau, Dominica, because no country code was required, the FTC said.
So consumers racked up international long distance calls when they tried to cancel the nonexistent "orders." And that's how the alleged perpetrators cashed in--by collecting revenue from U.S. carriers from the "pay-per-call" charges that unwitting consumers accrued.
The FTC didn't name defendants in its latest Net fraud complaint, but last week it did obtain a court order from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, which prohibits numerous U.S. telephone carriers from remitting funds to the owners of the "767" number involved in the case.
"These defendants were using telephone billing and collection systems to get money--we have stopped that money right in the pipeline," said Eileen Harrington of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
The FTC will try to get the Net users' money back, but first they have to find out who the alleged perpetrators are.
"Some of these crooks think they can take advantage of the anonymity of the Net, but we are now using court-backed discovery to learn who these people are--and we will," Harrington added.
The Dominica case is reminiscent of the Moldova sex sites that bilked thousands of surfers out of millions of dollars in 1997 through long distance phone bills.
In that case, the sites "sexygirls.com," "beavisbutthead.com," "erotic2000.com," and "1adult.com" secretly disconnected the consumers from their Internet service providers and rerouted their calls through Moldova, a republic in the former Soviet Union. As a result, unaware consumers in the United States and Canada were billed more than $2 per minute by their long distance providers.
The FTC shut down the sites, and in November 1997 it announced that more than 38,000 U.S. consumers would get more than $2.74 million in refunds from the companies that ran the scheme.