Beware Cyber Hijackers

computer worm graphic, 1-27-03, virus
It's tranquil in the Salmon River region of upstate New York. So when Heather Merritt came home from college last Christmas, she never suspected a thief was lurking.

"What I did was just plugged one of my phone lines that reaches one of the jacks," she says.

Like thousands of other unsuspecting Americans, she exposed her family to cybercrime, by simply connecting her computer modem to the phone line and then clicking on a Web site.

She downloaded a Spanish dictionary.

As CBS News Correspondent Thalia Assuras reports, she inadvertently introduced software that commandeered the modem, so that it made continuous long-distance calls.

"As you can see, there are oodles of calls made to this Spain number," says her dad, Carey Merritt.

Carey Merritt says the phone bill exploded by almost 3,000 percent. It totaled $1,456.

"I thought it was a joke, actually," he says.

It's no joke. By clicking on innocuous-looking Web sites, downloading games or entertainment - mostly the adult kind - or even just clicking pop-up Internet ads, criminal software can enter your computer, hijack the modem and speed-dial long-distance numbers without your knowing.

"For the average consumer who is surfing the net, and not the tech savvy consumer, they are at risk," says Tatiana Platt, Chief Trust Officer for AOL.

Platt says consumers need to continually install updated anti-virus software, firewalls and parental control programs, or use an Internet provider that does that. She also advises people to read everything before clicking.

"So long as the bad guys are succeeding in getting some people to fall for it, they are going to keep doing it," she says.

Carey Merritt wants phone companies to alert consumers when activity is out of whack, just like credit card companies do.

"I don't think there was enough consumer protection allowed," he says.

Most major phone companies will forgive hijacking charges on a one-time basis, but not Merritt's local carrier.

He says he's not paying.

"It's going to be a cold day in hell when I pay this bill," says Merritt.

So as he fights the charges, Merritt now has a collection agency calling.