Ireland blocks calls to 13 countries to thwart Net scam

Ireland's telecom regulator said this week that is taking "extraordinary" measures to protect Internet users from rogue autodialer programs that hijack their modems and run up long-distance phone charges by suspending direct dialing to 13 countries, most of which are South Pacific islands.

The measure, announced by Ireland's Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) on Monday, came in response to hundreds of consumer complaints about the scams. ComReg acknowledged that its move was extreme but said that previous efforts to raise awareness of the problem failed to significantly diminish complaints.

The autodialer programs change Internet users' dial-up settings to call an international number without their knowledge. Users are often unaware that they have been targeted until they receive exorbitant phone bills at the end of the month. Broadband users, who have fixed numbers, are not affected.

According to the RegCom a spokesman, one business in Ireland complained of receiving a phone bill for Euro 18,000 (US$22,212) due to the scam, while some home users unwittingly racked up phone bills as high as Euro 2,000.

RegCom's crackdown follows an increase in reports by consumers worldwide about the rising number of Internet scams, putting the onus on regulators to relieve the problem, the spokesman for RegCom said.

Numerous complaints about autodialers have also been received in the U.K., but so far it has not moved to block direct dialing. In July, however, the U.K.'s premium rate telephone services regulator, ICSTIS, began requiring companies that wanted to run Internet dialer services to apply for permission first. Furthermore, the U.K.'s telecom regulator, Ofcom, decided in August to look into strengthening ICSTIS' powers so it could further tackle these types of Internet scams.

A spokesman for Ofcom said Wednesday that authorities are well aware of the dialer scam and that many U.K. consumers have been affected. Regulators fear that if they do not take action, confidence in premium-rate services will be damaged, he said. It remains to be seen whether the U.K. and other countries will adopt the measures of Ireland's regulators.

RegCom gave telecommunications operators until Oct. 4 to suspend direct dial to 13 countries where many of the autodialer calls were routed. The countries being blocked include Norfork Island, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Comoros, as well as Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean that has no indigenous inhabitants, only a joint U.K.-U.S. military base.

The South Pacific island destinations may have been selected because they are some of the most expensive to call from Europe.

RegCom will keep the block in place for six months, after which it will be reviewed. All direct dial calls will initially be blocked, although the regulator is also compiling a "white list" of legitimate numbers that consumers have requested to call.

The regulator is also working with government representatives from the blocked countries, such as the Irish ambassador for the Cook Islands, to compile the list of legitimate numbers.

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