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Have you been scammed?

Kevin Anderson | 15:58 UK time, Friday, 23 June 2006

If you're like me, you get way too many spam e-mails every day. This spam, not that Spam. Most of it is just the electronic equivalent of junk mail, but some of it offers you wealth beyond your wildest dreams if you are so foolish to pass along bank details or wire thousands of dollars, pounds, euros to someone you've never heard of or met.

Have you been scammed? I have. Through a mix of technology, the gullibility of the new housemate of a former housemate and arcane US phone billing, I was a victim of the great Moldovan porn scam.

My whole long ordeal started when I moved from Kansas to Michigan in September of 1996. I shared a house with a university student who was working while going through school and trying to keep his bills down. Instead of shutting off the phone service and making him pay reconnect fees, I transferred the phone service to him. However, neither of us knew that he not only had to change the local service but also the long distance, and this was even after I informed my long distance that I had moved several states away.

They didn't make too many long distance phone calls so I didn't notice much until I noticed a bill for $1500 a few months later. I immediately called my phone company and told them that I didn't live in Kansas anymore and could not have made the calls. They said that there must have been an error and told me that they would amend my bill. However, it remained for six months. I called again, now creating a phone log and a paper trail. Again, they said that it was just an oversight, and that my bill would be changed.

A few months later, they sent me a mildly threatening bill saying that my bill was overdue. I called, and their tone had definitely changed, and soon, they were threatening to turn the matter over to a collection agency. I started to do some research and contacted my old housemate. He denied making the calls. Worse yet, the housemate that probably did had since moved.

And then it all became clear. My old housemate had dutifully transferred the local phone service, but neither of us understand that he also needed to transfer the long distance service. The long distance bill at my former address had remained in my name. Furthermore, I tracked the phone numbers: Moldova. Moldova? My world geography is a bit better than most, but this sent me to the atlas. Former part of Romania. Now, it's the poorest country in Europe.

Then, a little more research gave me a possible answer. I asked my former housemate if the guy who moved in after me had a computer. Yes. He did. I asked him if he ever looked at porn. He didn't know. But what probably happened was that this university student saw an advert for free porn on the internet. All he needed to do was to download a little free 'viewer'. Problem was, he got more than he bargained for with the viewer. The viewer was also a Trojan horse, a nasty programme wrapped up in a seemingly innocuous bit of code.

This particular Trojan was a dialer. This was back in the days before broadband, when you had to dial up your ISP. This dialer turned down the volume on your modem so you didn't hear that little sCRRREaawwwoOOhhh as it negotiated the connection. It changed your ISP from your friendly local internet service provider to a provider in - yup, you guessed it - Moldova. Everytime you turned on your computer, it would automatically dial Moldova, running up hundreds, in my case $1500 worth of calls in just 36 hours. Ouch.

Most large phone companies had simply refunded their customers for this obvious fraud, but due to the length of time my phone company had said everything was OK, the refund period was over. My phone company refused to refund the money, even though I called the vice president of customer of relations. She reviewed my situation and said that they were adding my case to their training as how not to handle customer relations. Thanks, but it still didn't solve the issue of the money. I'm not entirely sure how it all got resolved. My former housemate and our landlord, who is a lawyer, took over the case.

Now, those kind of diallers can be downloaded automatically without an internet user even knowing. They are called 'drive-by downloads'. Fortunately, they have no affect for broadband users. But be careful if you still have your computer hooked up to a phone line for fax service.

Well, that's my story. What are yours?

UPDATE: I found this really good page from the Secret Service in the US to avoid some of these online scams. Well, as Steve points out below, they aren't just in e-mail but also via fax now.

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