Phone News


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11th December

    Scammers Pay Back

Now Ofcom are getting involved

From The Register

Ofcom is targeting telephone network operators in a crackdown against rogue operators that rip-off customers with expensive premium-rate phone calls.

This tough stand follows growing concerns about the fraudulent and misleading use of premium rate services including rogue internet diallers which re-route dial up internet connections onto premium rate numbers without customers' knowledge or consent.

These numbers - which begin with 09 and cost up to 1.50 a minute on a BT line - are typically used for TV vote lines, competitions, adult services, chat lines, mobile phone ring tone downloads and interactive TV games.

However, an increasing part of the 830m a year industry is being hijacked by crooks who think it's an easy way to make money. As part of a wide range of measures designed to crack down on rogue operators, telecoms regulator Ofcom wants to delay payment to all service providers for at least 30 days. This would give staff at ICSTIS - the premium-rate regulator - time to investigate complaints into whether or not a service provider was running a scam.

Ofcom wants all revenues to be frozen during any ICSTIS investigation - and if necessary for a further three months after an investigation is complete - to ensure that there is money available to repay anyone ripped off by the scammers.

Ofcom also wants network operators to keep more detailed information on the service providers they deal with and to increase the maximum fine of 100,000 against those found to be running bent services.

Said Ofcom chief exec Stephen Carter: There is a clear need for action here. These are necessary changes to ensure consumer confidence in the premium rate industry for the long term.

Some of the proposals put forward by Ofcom today are already being introduced while others will be subject to public consultation during next year.

If all this is too scary, punters can contact their own telco to get premium numbers blocked. For instance, BT will block all calls to premium-rate numbers for free. But if you like to vote in "I'm a Celeb" or "X-Factor", you can pay a couple of quid a month and block calls selectively.


7th October

    Scammers Hung Up

Good to see BT stepping in after a totally pathetic show from Icstis

From The Register

BT is once again writing to its 1.8m dial-up internet users warning them to be on their guard against rogue diallers. In the last three months the UK's dominant fixed line telco has blocked 1,000 numbers which it reckons are being used to run premium-rate dialler scams.

In July, BT said it would take action against rogue dialler companies which defraud consumers by secretly changing their computer settings so they call a premium rate phone line instead of their usual ISP number.

Despite taking this "block first, ask questions later" approach, BT has now dealt with 45,000 cases where customers have run up inflated phone bills because of rogue diallers. Another 9,500 cases are waiting to be resolved.

As a result, BT is once again writing to its punters to remind them how to prevent becoming victims of these scams.

Said BT bigwig Gavin Patterson: BT is doing everything in its power to stop this menace. We have taken the decision to block numbers suspected of being associated with diallers as soon as we are alerted to a problem. We will be emailing all of our dial-up customers again to give them advice on how to avoid falling victim to a dialler, because customers need to take action as well to protect themselves, as we believe many cases aren't fraud but are due to a lack of awareness from customers.


26th August

    Westminster Plonkers

Time to find the names and phone numbers of these councillors and cold call them and let them know what plonkers they are.


Westminster Council has taken the bizarre step of urging residents to cold call mobile phone chiefs over their alleged failure to help remove prostitutes' calling cards from the area's public phone boxes.

The council has distributed cards with the names and business numbers of the heads of Vodafone, Orange, O2 and others to all residents, suggesting they call and make their feelings plain.

Under a 2001 agreement with BT, landlines advertised on the cards are cut off. But the council is outraged that mobile operators will not enter into a similar agreement.

It's unfair to point at mobile networks and say they are responsible for prostitution, said Jack Wraith, executive secretary of the Mobile Industry Crime Action Forum, the industry body set up to combat criminal use of communications.

Terminating numbers on the say-so of I don't know who isn't possible under the current regulatory framework. BT deals with fixed lines and their situation is legally very clear [about cutting off customers], but the mobile network is not so easy.

But Kit Malthouse, the deputy leader of Westminster council, strongly disputed this explanation. We've had meetings with [industry regulator] Ofcom and there's no problem with barring numbers; it's a fig leaf to cover themselves, he said.
We've been trying to get these companies into talks for the last five years and only one has shown any interest at all. The inaction is what's driven us to this measure.

Malthouse pointed out that it costs the council hundreds of thousands of pounds to clean up the millions of cards posted in phone boxes each year. BT's crackdown on the numbers led to an initial fall in the use of prostitutes' cards, but the gangs running the sex trade simply switched to mobile numbers, which can also be replaced more cheaply.

One of the operators, Orange, said that part of the problem is the ease of connections. It is our belief that if phone numbers are barred, the individuals concerned will merely buy a new sim card because they cost relatively little in the high street - around 10, the firm said in a statement. The new number will also have to be advertised, and so this may actually increase the amount of phone box cards in circulation and the negative aspects associated with them.


31st July

    Voda Over Censors

From New Media Zero spotted on the Cut blog

The introduction by Vodafone of the UK's first content filtering system for adult mobile content saw swathes of non-adult content providers wrongly blocked, with consumers unable to access content such as ringtones and games.

Although the operator rectified the situation, the mobile content industry is angry that the situation developed and says any other operators following Vodafone's policy must ensure it isn't repeated.

Vodafone first introduced its content control scheme at the start of July. Although the operator had been working with content providers to ensure that white lists of non-adult content wouldn't be blocked, large numbers of such sites were blocked. Clients weren't happy and lost money , said a mobile aggregator source. It carried on for over a week so a great deal of money was lost and people were very angry that they were wrongly classified as adult content ,' commented another source.

One mobile aggregator was angry that Vodafone appeared to be more concerned about the negative PR created in dealing with the problem than by the issue of content providers losing money.

Bernadette Lyons, MD of Mobileway, said that the policy over content control still needed some clarity. It's not clear how people register white-listed sites,' she said. 'There are new URLs all the time so it's a moving target and it's still not entirely clear how the process is managed. '

A Vodafone spokesman said: We did experience some teething problems with the launch of Vodafone Content Control, which lasted for a couple of days while we identified and resolved all of the instances. The process by which the incorrectly blocked sites are reviewed has now been streamlined and we have received no further complaints. We apologise for any inconvenience that this may have caused .


17th July

    Cheap Rate Regulation

From The Guardian

A clampdown on a new internet scam involving costly premium-rate lines was announced yesterday after it emerged that close to 60,000 people have complained of being ripped off since the start of this year.

Following calls for more aggressive action to tackle the menace of so-called "rogue diallers," Britain's premium-rate watchdog said it was setting up a licensing system that would require all premium-rate internet services to be vetted and approved before they could operate.

The watchdog, Icstis, hopes this will keep out most if not all of the mainly overseas-based companies behind the fraudulent services, though the move is unlikely to quell the demands for the prosecution of firms which have already made millions of pounds from unsuspecting users.

Thousands of people have unwittingly run up huge phone bills after falling victim to the scam, which tricks home computers into dialling expensive premium-rate lines and is often activated by closing an unwanted "pop-up" window.

The number of rogue diallers infecting PCs has snow balled in recent weeks, with most people only discovering they have been stung after receiving their telephone bill. Some people have been hit with bills for more than 1,000. The scam involves software which surreptitiously replaces an individual's usual internet connection with one that dials a premium rate number typically charging 1.50 a minute.

The switchboard at Icstis has been jammed with calls from angry internet users, and the organisation is investigating dozens of companies, based in locations including Panama, Majorca and Florida.

Icstis said it had dealt with "upwards of 60,000 complainants so far this year, most dialler-related". And it underlined its tough stance by yesterday announcing it had fined Liechtenstein-based telecommunications firm DDD Com 50,000 for rule breaches and ordered it to compensate 466 people following complaints that the firm's premium-rate dialler had downloaded automatically on to their PCs without their knowledge or consent. In addition, access to the company's 1.50-a-minute service was barred for six months.

Industry insiders say the problem has been aggravated by recent relaxation of EU e-commerce safeguards.

Until two years ago, any premium-rate internet service had to come to Icstis for prior permission. But after the EU e-commerce directive took effect, this regime was stopped on advice from the Department of Trade and Industry.

Following talks with the DTI, Icstis yesterday announced it was reintroducing a licensing system. All companies wanting to run premium-rate services using internet dialler software will first have to obtain permission from the watchdog.

George Kidd, director of the industry-funded organisation, said: We will only grant permission to those companies which satisfy our stringent requirements. These are being finalised but will cover key areas such as clear terms and conditions, user consent, information about how to delete diallers, and responsibility for customer refunds and Icstis fines."

The new system will mean British telecommunications companies will not be able to allocate premium-rate numbers to companies which run these services until they have seen written confirmation that permission has been given.


11th July

    Inadequate VodaFilters

Based on an article from The Register and first spotted on the Cut blog

Vodafone UK has defended the early introduction of adult content filters for its mobile phone users, saying that the system is necessary to protect children.

The operator launched the filters with great fanfare last week, five months ahead of the mobile phone industry's self-imposed deadline. However, aside from a smattering of applause from child protection lobbyists, the response to the launch has been critical.

Al Russell, head of content services at Vodafone, says the company wants parents and guardians to feel that their kids are safe using Vodafone's services. This is not an area for compromise. The choice was, do we want to wait to protect minors until the end of the year, or do we implement a transparent and pragmatic system now?

Other operators have written the move off as a publicity stunt, pointing out that there is not much competitive advantage in launching first. Their point was made for them: Vodafone has set the system up so that subscribers must prove that they are 18 to be gain access to restricted sites. However, deficiencies in the software meant large sections of the Net were classified as 18+ classification, regardless of their content.

The filtering system uses a rating dis-service bought in from a third party, which Vodafone is, as yet, reluctant to name. It uses a combination of a database of classified sites, and a dynamic rating service.

Andre Pyler, Vodafone's man on the ground, says the system is classifying everything except for half a per cent of user-requested URLs. In such cases, the URL is sent to a human operator for manual classification.

However, a glitch at launch meant subscribers trying to access pages that were unavailable for other reasons ended up seeing a restricted access notification, instead of a '404 not found' message. Also, the filter automatically barred sites that it couldn't automatically classify. The company says it has fixed both problems, and that complaints have dropped off substantially.

The industry-wide decision to introduce self regulation was prompted by the usual hints from government that life would be oh-so-much-more-complicated if it had to get involved. Vodafone says it was also contacted by several "charity stakeholders", who were just as keen to see some kind of restriction on the access to porn and betting sites.

By the end of 2004, all the operators in the UK will have content regulation, with the still-to-be-appointed Independent Content Board (ICB, as it will be known) taking responsibility for rating content.

The ICB, or the lack of the ICB, is also proving controversial. Although Russell insists Vodafone does not see its role as that of censor, he concedes that the situation will be more comfortable when a third party is responsible for rating content, and there is clear accountability in place.


10th July

    Premium Scam Rate Numbers

From WebUser

BT is to block calls to premium rate numbers associated with internet diallers following a rise in the number of complaints from surfers.

The UK's telephone industry regulator ICSTIS has reported a "significant rise in the number of complaints" from people left facing huge bills for premium-rate calls they claim they did not make.

The problem can arise when Trojan horses install themselves on computers and are able to change the internet settings so that dial up connections always call premium-rate numbers rather than the regular ISP numbers.

MPs called a debate at the House of Commons' Westminster Hall this morning to highlight the issue of so-called rogue diallers and urged BT and ICTIS to take action to safeguard consumers.

BT has now vowed to block calls to premium rate numbers associated with diallers for all its customers and will "forego its share of the money generated by these expensive calls" - it claims that for every 100 bill run up by a dialler, BT's share is 1.85. BT will also offer a free premium rate call block on all customer lines.

Gavin Patterson, BT group managing director at consumer and ventures, said: We have decided to act on this issue, which is causing genuine concern to us and thousands of our customers. When a premium rate number is suspected of being used to deliver rogue diallers we will block traffic to that number without waiting for the regulator to complete an investigation.

ICSTIS is already aware of the changes that need to be made to their code of practice. Their investigations into these numbers are lengthy and the current code of practice doesn't take into account much of this practice. BT is working urgently with the regulator and other network operators to address this industry problem.

George Kidd, director of ICSTIS, said: As an industry we should all do everything possible to prevent dialler harm from happening. ICSTIS is looking at taking our registration process further and introducing some form of licencing. Where harm does occur we need to act fast.

BT will include advice on how to avoid drop-in diallers in its Update magazine that accompanies the blue bill, and at . The company has also emailed all its internet customers with advice.


7th July

    Dodgy Filters

From The Register

Vodafone's new mobile content filtering system, designed to stop children accessing Web nasties with their mobiles, raises more questions than it answers.

In January, the major UK operators agreed to implement a content filtering system, with an independent body in place to rate content, by the end of the year. Vodafone has launched its filtering system five months early, presumably hoping to steal a media victory from under the noses of its rivals.

Child protection groups have welcomed the Voda's decision to begin content filtering before the December deadline, but early indications are that the operator has bitten off more than it can chew.

The Register has been flooded with reports of technical difficulties. Some Vodafone users say they have been unable to access corporate email - Vodafone's Blackberry service was apparently disrupted for a time. Others have been unable to access the Sky News website. Access to pornography, however, does not appear to have been universally restricted.

Vodafone argues that teething troubles are to be expected when a system like this goes live to so many users. It is less forthcoming with explanations of how the system should work, once the problems have been ironed out.

How are sites classified? How accurate is that classification, and what should a site do if it thinks it has been unfairly grouped under the 'adult' banner. Why does Vodafone think it can decide what is appropriate content - after all, who is it answerable to? Site operators who feel they have been unfairly or inaccurately classified can appeal to Vodafone to change its mind. But what is the appeals process. And what if a publisher sued Voda for defamation if its website was wrongly tagged as adult content.

Vodafone's customers would like to know the answers. So, it seems would Vodafone. Confusion reigns within the company, which was unable to provide answers to some basic questions about the way the service operates.

Despite two days of calling, we have been unable to determine who at Vodafone is responsible for classifying material; nor have we been able to confirm how the operator is filtering content.

Some users report that they have been unable to access corporate email - Vodafone's Blackberry service was apparently disrupted for a time. Others say that they have been unable to access the Sky News website.

Calls to customer services elicit the explanation that some of the news is deemed too violent for children. An alternative suggestion was that Sky News has a gambling section, which would fall under the banner of restricted access, and cause the site to be barred.

Both explanations are silly. Firstly, whole news sites are blocked because of one story or one section, and secondly, anyone who wants their 16-year old to be able to access the news, has to register them as being over 18. This delivers access to the very sites they are supposed to be protected from.

The problem seems to stem from the binary nature of the classification scheme. So far as we can determine, a site is either universal, or it is adult. There is no middle ground.

There is a way round this: as with services like Bango, content providers are asked to classify their own content as either suitable for universal access, or for adults only. Webmasters can divide their site along these lines and allocate content accordingly. The difference is that Bango asks its client content providers to classify their material like this. Vodafone is asking it of the entire Web.

A spokeswoman for T-Mobile told El Reg that any competitive advantage Vodafone hopes to gain with the move would be short lived. This doesn't make Vodafone any more worthy that any of the rest of us. We are all working on the same systems. T-Mobile has always planned to implement its filtering system once the classification body is in place. It is hard to see how we could do it any other way. "

T-Mobile anticipates that this body would be appointed in the next few months. In the meantime, Vodafone is out on its own, and its progress is being watched closely.

Especially by Vodafone's customers, many of whom are already losing patience.


5th July

    Dodgy Signals

I wonder why Vodafone are so keen on getting credit card details. If an obvious adult walks into a vodafone shop then surely they have proved their age.

I am concerned that my wife who does not have a credit card will be unjustifiably be denied her human rights by Vodafone.

From AVN

Vodafone has begun barring customers from reaching adult Websites through their handsets, saying the move is aimed primarily at protecting children. Vodafone customers will have to prove now that they are over 18 before the restrictions are lifted.

We have seen the popularity of mobile Internet to access things like chatrooms, said Vodafone chief of content services Al Russell, announcing the new policy, and if we didn't take action it was inevitable that minors would be exposed to adult services. An estimated 16.5 million out of 47.5 million British mobile phones have some kind of Internet access, according to several published reports.

The restrictions also cover gambling sites and Internet chatrooms that are unmonitored or otherwise deemed for adults, Vodafone said announcing the new policy. Other than proof of age, the wireless giant added, the blocks go on and stay on until a customer opts in and asks for the blocks to come off. If they want the blocks off, Vodafone said, they will have to provide credit card details for verification, online, on the phone, or at a Vodafone store.

Vodafone said it is using a filter to look for particular words and content to pick off adult Websites and block them. The company claims to be the first mobile operator around the world to do this, seven months after the British mobile industry agreed to take action to block porn sites.


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