Problem of the week

Tips & Hints

How not to fall victim to a huge Internet bill

15 March 2001

A family recently ran up a $700 telephone bill in an afternoon. The story, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, told of the Leach family whose computer dialled eight times to a premium charge service one afternoon. While the circumstances may be unusual, running up a huge bill is not unknown for Internet users.

The most common way to get a huge bill is to have the wrong Internet plan and be hit with high usage charges. Most Internet users have accounts that include a basic time or download allowance and a charge for any excess. If your Internet access bill is regularly showing excess usage charges then you should contact your ISP and ask about moving to another access plan.

Forgetting to hang up the modem when finished is another way users exceed their standard allowance. Make sure that your Internet dialler program is set to disconnect after some inactive time. Be careful with your mail program, if it is set to check the mail every ten minutes and the computer is to hang up after twenty minutes of inactivity, the computer will never hang up while the mail program is open.

It isn't just the Internet provider that can give you a nasty surprize, if you are using a dial up connection you also incur connection charges. Do not to allow your computer to connect automatically without some action on your part, such as clicking connect or entering the password. By making the computer ask before it connects, it will not be connecting without you being aware of it.

By having to click a button or enter a password when connecting, you can also check the number before dialling. If you see a number starting with an international code (0011, 0015 etc) or a premium call number (190) then you have a problem. That problem is probably a dialler program.

Dialler programs are designed so your phone bill rather than your credit card is billed for access to "premium" sites. Credit card fraud is generally a risk for the merchant and credit card company, if you dispute the charge then the merchant or the credit card company usually absorbs the cost. Phone bill fraud puts the cost on the consumer, if you get a thousand dollar phone bill it is your problem.

Dialler programs usually find their way onto a computer by a user downloading the program. Sometimes it is legitimate, the customer wants to avoid credit card charges when accessing pay for view Internet sites. Sometimes the user is tricked into downloading the program believing it to be a special picture viewer or game playing program, see our previous article explaining how trojan programs work.

A more obscure problem that causes strange Internet charges is the computer starting automatically. All modern computers have auto wake up functions built into them, these are designed for system administrators to restart the computer and carry out remote maintenance outside working hours. If these are not disabled on home computers then the computer may start if a certain event, such as a call on the modem line, happens. If that computer has an Internet program opening when the computer starts and the dialler is automatic, then the computer will start and connect to the Internet without anyone realising.

All Internet users should check their bills regularly. It is not unknown for ISPs to make mistakes in their billing and it is possible for your account to be used by a fraudster. While most of this article discusses problems that largely affect dial up Internet account users, cable and ADSL users should be aware that they can incur a huge bill or be disconnected because of excessive downloads.

These problems have been around for a while and consumer protection organisations have been reporting on them. Some of the links to relevant sites are:

US Federal Trade Commission website has details of the international dialler scam.

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman has discussed this problem in a media release.

An independent organisation,, has a number of articles on the issue porn dialler scam and a similar scam on game sites.

Some other media reports of the problem:
ABC News (US), Wired Magazine and the SMH article describing the problems of the Leach family.

PC Rescue Pty Ltd
Suite 236, 4 Young Street Neutral Bay NSW 2089
ABN 082 635 765
ŠTechnology Publishing Australia, 2011