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Law Seeks To Stop Modem Hijacking

As you're clicking away at your keyboard, you may be turning your telephone modem over to Internet thieves who make international calls and a profit at your expense.

That's modem hijacking.

New York lawmakers on Monday announced what apparently is a first of its kind measure in the nation to target the practice, which is estimated to run up millions of dollars in illicit phone calls for Americans whose service is stolen through dial-up connections from personal computers.

"They are very creative in doing what they do," said Sen. James Wright, of northern New York's Jefferson County. He said the hijackers can now probably avoid the law because they flash a pop-up window for the computer user to check, authorizing the downloading of modem software that then is remotely accessed to make international calls that are charged back to the unwitting computer user.

New York's bill appears to be the first of its kind to target modem hijacking, said Pam Greenberg of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other states are considering similar, broader bills and some modem hijacking might be investigated under some states' computer-trespassing laws, she said.

Verizon Communications Inc. has investigated complaints and erased the charges of countless customers thought to be victims of modem hijacking, said company spokesman Cliff Lee. He said the company also advises customers how to avoid the practice through consumer alerts and bill messages. Verizon has also sought help from federal officials, Lee said.

A profit is turned when the hijacker sells the long-distance service to overseas foreign telephone service carriers, all paid for by the computer user back home. This type of hijacking is generally not an issue for people who access the Internet through cable modems or digital subscriber lines (DSL).

The law would allow telephone companies and the state attorney general to bring civil lawsuits against the hijackers and their accomplices.

Modem hijacking has gained national attention with the adware, spyware, dialers and similar software installed without the knowledge of its owner. Advertisers and peddlers of pornography are often behind the activity. Spy Sweeper, Ad-Aware and other software can be purchased to ward against the practice.

Consumers can fight modem hijacking by using a dedicated phone line for the computer dial-up connection then blocking international calls to that line.

Wright said consumers should disconnect the computer if the user hears a call going out through the modem, install a firewall to block hackers, and watch children who often click through pop-ups and inadvertently accept the hijacking software.