"Modem hijacking" appears to be on the rise, judging from complaints received by Better Business Bureaus, state and federal agencies and telephone service providers in the past year. Victims discover that their computers have become programmed to make international telephone calls, without their knowledge.
How does this happen? Typically, the "hijacking" occurs when a customer with dial-up access to the Internet clicks "I Accept" or "Yes" on certain pop-up ads that offer "free" Internet content. According to the Federal Trade Commission, these scams are typically associated with adult sites. The sites claim to be "free" or advertise "no credit card is needed," then prompt the user to download a "viewer" or "dialer" program.
Once the program is downloaded the software reconfigures the customer’s modem to dial international calls. The consumer may not realize it if he or she did not carefully read all the fine print of the terms before clicking the "accept" button. Calls are then dialed automatically and at random times, without the customer’s knowledge, and are carried by the customer’s long distance carrier to international destinations.
Modem hijacking can also affect broadband customers who have a dial-up telephone line – to send faxes, for example -- connected to their computer. There have been reported instances where a consumer triggered the download by simply attempting to close the pop-up ad.
Victims typically become aware of the "hijacking" when the charges show up on their long distance bills. Unless the customer has selected an international discount calling plan, these calls are billed at higher basic international rates, so the dollar amounts involved can total hundreds of dollars.
The BBB joins with the FTC to advise consumers, particularly those with dial-up access to the Internet, to 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 it is not in use.
- Make sure your modem makes an audible noise when dialing a phone number, so you can be aware when a new connection is being made;
- If you see a dialog 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 a 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-hijacking scams.
Take action if you believe you are the victim of a modem hijacking. 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.