Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate
555 Walnut Street
5th Floor Forum Place
Harrisburg, PA 17101-1923

Phone: 717-783-5048 or toll free 800-684-6560
Fax: 717-783-7152


Consumer Tip for January 2005

Toll Free Number


 (PA only)

Your computer can make its own long distance calls by modem hijacking!

Many consumers are falling prey to scammers who access your computer to place costly long distance phone calls usually to an overseas number. If you use a dial-up modem to access the Internet, you could be shocked by your next long distance phone bill.

As you search the Internet, scammers can cause a software program to download onto your system without your knowledge. These “dialer” programs change your system settings and connect to long distance telephone numbers, again without your knowledge.  Sometimes the dialer uses your dial-up telephone modem for connections to foreign countries at extremely high per-minute rates. This process is known as “modem hijacking”. It can happen at a variety of websites, but often shows up through “pop-up” ads.

Scammers cannot access cable modems or DSL, but some users still have a dial-up connection active in their computer to use for sending and receiving faxes. Sometimes consumers just have not removed the old dial-up connecting line, so the dialer uses it for long distance access. 

These long distance calls can amount to hundreds or even thousands of dollars on consumers’ phone bills and some telephone companies are trying to hold consumers liable for payment of those amounts. The Office of Consumer Advocate (OCA) does not agree that consumers should be held liable for these unauthorized calls.   It is the OCA’s position that these charges are illegal and that including these charges on your telephone bill is a form of impermissible “cramming.”

If one of these unauthorized charges appears on your telephone bill, contact your telephone company right away and state that you are contesting that portion of the bill.  If the company says that you are still liable for the bill, or tries to collect the unauthorized charges from you by threatening suspension of service or referring your account to a collection agency, please call the OCA toll-free at 800-684-6560.  The OCA will assist you in trying to resolve the matter.  You may also wish to register a complaint with the Public Utility Commission.

There are some things you can do to protect your computer against such a scam.

Be informed. Be cautious with clicking your mouse. If something seems too good to be true…it usually is, so do not click on it.
Always say no to things when you are not absolutely sure what they will do.
Many times, you are asked if you want to install something. If you are not sure installing is a good thing to do, click the “x” that closes that window. Do not click either the “yes” or the “no” button, just close the whole window containing the question.
The dialing process sometimes hides in Microsoft operating systems. You may not know it is happening. Try to use a setting that lets you hear the modem dial tone or dialing tones. Then cancel any connection you have not authorized.
If you find an unauthorized dialer already exists on your computer, there are special software packages available to delete them. Update your virus protection often, weekly if you can.
Keep your computer system updated, as well as your Anti Virus Software.
You can control a personal firewall with the click of a mouse. You can choose to have a firewall completely block or allow access to the internet.  You can also use a pop-up blocker.
If you use an internal modem, remove the telephone cable from it when you are not using it. If you have an external modem, turn it off when not in use.
Contact your Internet Service Provider (ISP). See if they have any free anti-virus software or spam filtering software that could help address modem hijacking issues.
You can request toll call restrictions or an international toll block from your telephone company. There may be a charge for password coded or permanent call restriction services.
Report any unauthorized calls to your telephone company. You may be able to block future calls to that number.

These are tips to help you try to avoid the hijackers. We know that as soon as one "fix" works, the scammers will be trying to undo it. Ultimately, right now, we all have to keep our eyes and ears open and be aware of what's going on with our computers and our internet service providers (ISPs).

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