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Moldova: Phone Scam Involves Pornography And Internet

Washington, 27 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials have shut down three pornographic Internet Web sites after it was discovered that thousands of people who thought they were viewing adult material for free were actually being charged for expensive phone connections to Moldova.

The reported scam worked by inviting browsers to download software to view certain pornographic photographs. What the software really did was to provide the pictures to distract the users, disconnect the phone link to the original Internet provider, mute the speaker on the dialing device so the user would not know the connection had been broken, and re-dial a number carrying the country code of Moldova.

What was even worse, users remained connected to the Moldova number even after they left the web site to surf another location, closed their browser altogether, or used a different application on their computer. In order to break the connection, the computer had to be physically turned off.

The American telephone company, AT&T, alerted federal officials in late December when they noticed an unusual spike in the number of calls to Moldova, all to the same number.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said complaints came in soon afterwards from customers whose telephone bills were running as high as $3,000.

Two New York City-based companies -- Audiotex Connection and Promo Line -- are currently being charged in a lawsuit brought by the FTC regarding the Internet fraud. Three individuals, all from New York and either the owners or proprietors of the three Web sites, have also been charged with unfair and deceptive trade practices.

FTC officials say they suspect the perpetrators expected to receive money from the telephone company in Moldova, but acknowledge they have no proof of this. FTC officials say that telephone companies worldwide often set up telephone or Internet-related programs to try and generate calls from foreign countries. The enticement is that under international law, the telephone company receiving the call is entitled to a share of the charges paid to the host phone company.

Officials at the Embassy of Moldova in Washington say they are launching their own investigation of the matter.

AT&T says that it expects customers to pay the bills, despite the apparent fraud. Richard Petilla, AT&T's corporate security manager is quoted this week in "The New York Times" as saying that if AT&T is required to pay under international agreements, so must its customers.

Two other major American telephone companies, MCI Communications and Sprint announced they would handle complaints on a case by case basis.