When Your Computer Calls Overseas...Without Your OK

If you live in the U.S., would you ever call somewhere in the Southwest Pacific to connect to the Internet? How about Chad, Guyana or Madagascar?

Most likely you are using a local phone number to get online, and you know exactly how much you are paying for your Internet service.

Nevertheless, many consumers are finding long distance charges on their phone bills for calls made through their modems without their knowledge or approval.

How does it happen? Some websites use international dialing to trick consumers into paying to access content. 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 the Internet connection and reconnects to an international long-distance phone number, at rates between $2 and $7 per minute.

These scams are typically associated with adult sites, and do not require a credit card number for access. That means they are 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.

Take the following precautions
  • Consider a dedicated phone line for your computer, restrict it to local calls, and disconnect the line to your modem when not in use.
  • Make sure your modem makes an audible noise when dialing a phone number so you can be aware when a connection is being made.
  • If you see a dialogue box on your computer indicating that it is dialing when you did not direct it to, cancel the connection and hang up.
  • Beware of the dangers of downloading "viewer" or "dialer" software. Read online disclosures carefully, clicking through to every level of detail. Do not click on "OK" unless you know exactly what you are agreeing to.
  • If you use high-speed DSL or cable connection, disconnect any phone line you used in the past to dial up the Internet.
  • Consider installing a program on your computer to block pop-up ads and identify and remove the types of programs that may be associated with modem-high-jacking scams.
Stop modem redialing
Here's how you can minimize your changes of finding surprise international long distance charges on your phone bill:

  • Beware of any program that enables your modem to redial to the Internet. If you see a dialog box on your computer indicating that it's dialing when you didn't direct it to, disconnect from your Internet service. Check the number you're dialing and continue only if it's a local call.
  • Read online disclosures carefully. They may be buried several clicks away in pages of small print. In addition, carefully scroll through the language in the typical gray boxes on your screen. Do not click on "OK" unless you know exactly what you are agreeing to.
  • Talk to your children. Recognize that they are obvious 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 websites your child visits by checking the web browser history files and cache.
  • Be skeptical when surfing the web. Free does not always mean free. 
  • Do not download programs from the Internet without reading the disclosures. It is important that you read the terms and conditions disclaimer before you accept.
Some websites may be advertised as "free and uncensored" or may allow information to be downloaded. However, during website access a pop-up window with a disclaimer appears.

The disclaimer usually reveals information on possible charges or the rerouting of the website. It may say, "you will be disconnected from your local Internet access number and reconnected to an international location" (which could be Chad, Madagascar, Vanuatu, or some other country).

There may also be charges from a non-telecommunications company that provides a billing service to the website in question.

If you still chose to download, you should be prepared to receive a phone bill with high international toll charges.

  • You can ask your phone company for an International Block on your computer line.
  • If you acquire broadband Internet access, consider disabling your modem.
  • Take advantage of firewalls, virus protection, and anti-spyware programs. Download the latest updates to your operating system and Internet browsers.
  • Take action if you find charges on your phone bill that you did not authorize.
  • Save your bill as it may help identify the scammers when you report the incident. Contact the company doing the billing and dispute the charges.
  • Contact the Bureau of Consumer Protection, toll-free, at 800-422-7128, or use the online complaint form.
(Taken from the Bureau of Consumer Protection Consumer Facts "When your computer calls overseas...without your OK.")