Telus Communications Inc. is poised to target four small Third World countries for long-distance service restrictions to thwart criminals who have swindled hundreds of customers in Western Canada through such tactics as modem highjacking.
The Vancouver-based telecom says it drafted the plan of action after receiving hundreds of complaints over the past several months from B.C. and Alberta subscribers who discovered unauthorized charges – sometimes thousands of dollars worth – on their monthly statements.
Singled out are the West African countries of Sao Tome and Guinea-Bissau, South America’s Guianian region and Nauru in the South Pacific. Though the criminals could be anywhere in the world, these countries provide them access to the global telecommunications infrastructure.
Another hotspot for telefraud is the Oceanian country of Niue, a pinprick on the South Pacific map with 2,000 inhabitants and 400 telephone lines.
In Saskatchewan, more than 700 residents have complained about SaskTel billings that contained page after page of calls to Sao Tome. No such statistics were available at Telus.
“We are limiting direct-dial access,” Telus spokesman Charlie Fleet of Edmonton told Business Edge. “If we put a direct-dial block on the network, an operator would come on the line and say,‘This call has to be operator assisted.’ ” The restrictions are to take effect July 1.
Fleet said some 2,000 legitimate calls are placed each month to friends and relatives in Sao Tome, Guinea-Bissau, Nauru and the Guianian region from Alberta and B.C. A single call to an overseas country can go through as many as eight telephone companies, he said.
Telus will waive its higher operator-assisted rates for calls to these countries, Fleet said. “They would get the direct-dial rates. If it were a computer dialing out, it would not be able to.”
Telus says on its www.telus.com website that highjacking can occur when a customer – whose access to the Internet is via a fax modem connecting the computer and telephone jack – unwittingly enters a criminal’s website and follows the instructions to access its information.
(Customers who have high-speed Internet access are not susceptible).
The instructions often appear in pop-up windows that ask for permission to download a file and accept the website’s terms and conditions. They may also indicate that the visitor needs a special viewer to view the content or a special dialer to contact their servers.
Once the visitor accepts, a computer file gains access to the communications software on the visitor’s computer and uses the modem to redial phone numbers regardless of where in the world they are located. This results in the long-distance charges and/or connection fees.
It is not known what types of business the criminals purport to be operating, or whether they even bother setting up a business for any purpose other than to enter into telefraud partnerships with backwater potentates.
“That’s an issue for international law enforcement and governments,” Fleet said.
At first, Telus dismissed consumer complaints about fraudulent billings as the handiwork of modem highjackers – criminals who use computer software to infiltrate the victim’s home computer and cause it to dial the calls.
It later discovered that some apparently were the result of someone in the household having called a 900 number, not realizing their fortune-teller or dial-a-sweetie was in a faraway tropical paradise.
Fleet said Telus and other Canadian telephone utilities are governed by international toll agreements that require them to compensate foreign utilities for charges.
In turn, they collect the charges from their Canadian customers.
The Canadian utilities are similarly compensated when a 900 call is placed to a business in Canada.
No consideration is given in these unholy pacts as to whether the parties are operating in an environment where there is little or no incentive to be discriminating about the legitimacy of their clients and where the authorities turn a blind eye to criminal behaviour.
Fleet acknowledged that telefraud is a major issue. He said Telus is adopting the restrictions despite the complexity of reprogramming its systems.
“It’s an effort to assist and try to solve this,” he said.
“But this doesn’t absolve the customer from taking steps to protect themselves.”
Telus recommends caution when entering unknown websites and disconnecting the computer’s telephone modem when it is not in use.
Customers also have the option of subscribing to Telus’s Call Gate service to prevent long-distance calls or other charges (ie: 900, 411) without the phone subscriber’s knowledge.
In a perplexing twist, Telus has investigated complaints from two Calgary-area customers who have reported billings from calls to Sao Tome despite the absence of any computer or Internet-access equipment in the household.
The residents contacted the Better Business Bureau of Southern Alberta after Telus dismissed their complaints as instances of modem highjacking, the financial consequences for which the customers were presumed responsible.
Fleet said Telus eventually reversed the 1-900 charges, but held fast on charges for direct-dialed calls for one of its clients, a Calgary family to whom it issued a suspension notice.
“We did testing on those lines,” he said. “Our field technicians went out to see if someone was tapping into their lines.”
Telus concluded the family, who said they had never heard of Sao Tome, had placed the calls.
The other complainant, a 911 operator and acting fire- chief in a town near Calgary, is waging a battle with Telus over unauthorized billings. She also got introduced to Sao Tome through the appearance of the country’s name on her statements.
Her billings have totalled close to $2,000 since these charges began appearing last fall.
The woman claims Telus did little to address her complaint as the amount owing continued to increase. The regulatory Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in Vancouver did not return her calls or letters. Telus disconnected her phone in March.
On May 25, Telus closed its file after taking one last look. “Unfortunately, Telus Communications Inc. was unable to provide reimbursement for the calls as they were found to be directly dialed from the location,” Telus wrote.
(Brock Ketcham is the director of trade practices for the Better Business Bureau of Southern Alberta. He can be reached at email@example.com)