When Your Computer Makes A
Call...Without Your Okay
If you use the Internet, you're probably dialing a local phone number
to get online. Chances are you know exactly what you pay for that
local service. However, many consumers are surprised to find they've
been charged for calls to destinations that aren't remotely local,
simply remote. The calls were made through their modems without
their knowledge or approval.
does it happen? According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the
nation's consumer protection agency, it's a scheme some Web sites use
to trick consumers into paying to access "free" Internet content.
Often, the sites claim to be "free" or advertise that "no credit card
is needed," then prompt the user to download a "viewer" or "dialer"
program. Here's the catch: Once the program is downloaded to the
user's computer, it disconnects from the Internet and reconnects using
another phone number - a domestic long distance, international or 900
number - at rates between $2 and $7 a minute.
The FTC says these scams, which are
typically associated with adult sites, don't require a credit card
number for access. That means they're available to children, who can
click onto them without their parents' knowledge or permission. Even
if parents disable international calling from their phone lines, many
modem dialers are programmed to circumvent the "block," and initiate
international calls using a "10-10 dial-around" prefix.
Here's how you can minimize your
chances of finding surprise charges on your phone bill:
- Consider a dedicated phone line for
your computer and restrict it to local calls.
- Pay attention to any program that
enables your modem to re-dial to the Internet. If you see a dialog
box on your computer indicating that it's dialing when you didn't
direct it to, cancel the connection and hang up. Check the number
you're dialing and continue only if it's a local call.
- Make sure your modem makes an
audible noise when dialing a phone number - so you can hear that a
new connection is being made.
- Delete any dialer programs that have
been downloaded onto your computer.
- Read online disclosures carefully.
They may be buried several clicks away in pages of small print. In
addition, read the language in the typical gray boxes on your
screen. Don't click on "OK" unless you know exactly what you're
- If in the past you used a modem to
dial up the Internet and now you use a high-speed DSL or cable
connection, disconnect the phone line from your computer. You don't
need it to access the Internet any more, and it could leave you
vulnerable to a dialer program.
- You may want to install a firewall,
especially if you use a high-speed Internet connection. A firewall
is software or hardware designed to block hackers from accessing
your computer. You also might consider increasing the security
settings on the operating system software on your computer.
- Talk to your children. Explain that
they could be targets of international modem dialing scams and tell
them the consequences of downloading "viewer" or "dialer" programs
on the computer.
- Monitor your children's Internet
use. Keep track of the Web sites your children visit by checking the
Web browser history files and cache.
- Be skeptical when surfing the Web
especially when you see claims like "free" or "no credit card
needed" in exchange for a product or service.
- Dispute the charges with the company
doing the billing.
- Save the bill. If you think you've
been a victim of unauthorized modem dialing, it may help identify
the scammers when you report the incident.
- Take action if you are billed for
access to Internet content that you didn't authorize. Use the
complaint form at
www.ftc.gov, or contact the FTC, toll-free, at 1-877-FTC-HELP
The FTC works for the consumer to
prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the
marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and
avoid them. To file a
complaint or to get free information
on consumer issues, visit
call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. The
FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft and other fraud-related
Consumer Sentinel, a
secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law
enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.
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FOR THE CONSUMER