Phone bills hit by Web access switch

The old scam of switching unsuspecting callers from toll-free 800 numbers to high-toll 900 numbers is sweeping across the World Wide Web.

Both switch-and-bill tactics result in shocking telephone charges, sometimes more than $10 per minute when the Web surfer thought he was riding the waves on a free local access number.

"It's been going on for quite awhile," said Gordon Diamond, West Coast communications director for AT&T. "As more and more people are going online and surfing the Web, more and more people are getting hit by it."

In most cases, Diamond said, Web users are surfing around and hit an international adult entertainment site that automatically downloads an ISP dialer, which allows consumers to access Web sites without a credit card.

Sometimes a pop-up window gives a long disclaimer -- but not always. A click to delete may actually approve the transaction.

Sometimes all that is seen is a quick flash and if surfers are paying attention they may notice something is being downloaded.

Or the download may actually be masked by a dozen or so adult-site windows popping up.

"They use all kinds of ways to try to hide the fact that they are downloading an ISP dialer and try to get you to accept it without knowing it," Diamond said.

Then the dialing program automatically disconnects the local-access Internet service provider in use and redials to an international toll number.

Like the old 800 to 900 telephone-number scam, the toll number is usually in some unknown country such as Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, or Vanuatu in the South Pacific.

And the consumer is unaware of the mounting charges until they receive a phone bill.

According to John McGlamery, Nevada deputy attorney general, the state consumer affairs division has had many complaints against AT&T related to Internet charges.

"(AT&T) used to have agreements that they would actually do billing for 900 numbers," McGlamery said. Under pressure from consumer organizations "AT&T got out of that business in February."

Since then, complaints have almost stopped, he said. Of 38 complaints in the last year and a half, only six have been from the period since February.

That may have slowed the incidents of Internet switch-and-billings, but not stopped it.

"One of problems is that what these organizations do it's not illegal," Diamond said. "What can you do when you have all these offshore businesses, legitimate business organizations? You can't refuse service."

AT&T does offer relief to those hit by the scam.

"Our policy is to credit the customer the first time it happens and tell them how to stop it from happening again," Diamond said. "We certainly try to educate the consumer as much as possible. ...

"There's only so much that we can do. We can't monitor where people go when they're on the Web."

There are numerous ways to keep Internet surfing safe from charging scams.

An assortment of adult entertainment blocks are available. Most Internet service providers offer Web versions. Long-distance carriers can block access to 900 numbers and international numbers.

Computer programs, such as Godzilla, monitor downloads and give warnings when something is being downloaded.

McGlamery also suggests if something odd happens online, make sure you're still online via your local Internet service provider, and if necessary disconnect the Web and log on again.

Ultimately, it comes down to parents monitoring their children's Internet use and adults being careful where they surf.

"Buyer beware," Diamond said. "Consumers need to put in adequate safeguards."


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