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Brits hit by surge in phone-charge Net fraud

Are Trojans behind a surge in complaints from Web users billed for accessing premium-rate sites that they say they never visited?

The number of British Internet users claiming to have fallen victim to premium-rate phone charge fraud has risen sharply, according to industry regulators.

ICSTIS, which regulates premium rate numbers in the United Kingdom, has been forced to call in the country's National Hi-Tech Crime Unit after being hit with a surge in fraud complaints.

According to ICSTIS, some of the incidents behind the complaints may have been caused by dialers, which are software programs secretly downloaded onto victims' PCs.

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Dialers are typically downloaded onto computers to allow access to pay-per-view Web sites, such as porn sites. It appears they are being installed without users' knowledge and are running up large bills by connecting to premium-rate telephone lines.

The percentage of Internet-related complaints about premium-rate services rose from 43 percent in 2002 to 70 percent in 2003, when calculated as a proportion of customers making complaints about high telephone bills, ICSTIS said.

However, when the regulatory body investigates these complaints, it often finds that the companies concerned appear to be conforming to its standards, Suhil Baht, a policy advisor at ICSTIS, said. This has led the organization to turn to the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit.

"If it's only a few cases, then we can put it down to the husband or kids not admitting to surfing porn," Baht said. "But if 300 customers are saying the same thing about one company, then we can't ignore it. We can't work out what the problem is, so we have recently started talking to the Hi-Tech Crime Unit, so they can do a criminal investigation."

A representative for the tech crime unit confirmed that it is in the "early stages of the investigation." One possible cause being examined is Trojan viruses.

"While (you are) online, the Trojan will drop your current Internet connection and reconnect you to a premium-rate line. It can then change your Internet settings so that the premium-rate dialer is used as a default," the representative said.

This problem is restricted to people who use a dial-up connection to the Internet and can be avoided by using antivirus software, according to the tech crime unit.

The problem of dial-up scams in the United Kingdom is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. The National Hi-Tech Crime Unit has admitted that it is not giving the problem its full attention yet, because it is concentrating its efforts on dealing with "phishing," an Internet scam in which people are lured into giving up personal data such as online passwords.

Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK reported from London.