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Foreign phone scammers rip off companies

Date: 4/16/2008 1:12:08 PM

Foreignbased criminals are ripping off Australian companies by hacking into their telephone systems and racking up massive bills.

A Melbourne retailer and university were last week hit with collective phone bills of more than $100,000 of overseas calls with police still gathering evidence of more victims.

Both parties are angry with Telstra which, they say, is insisting they pay the bills.

The Camberwell Electrics Superstore was contacted by Telstra to ask why they had made $20,000 worth of overseas calls in less than two weeks, the stores accountant, Chris Koh, told AAP.

A Swinburne University spokeswoman said it knew nothing about the scam until it was hit by an $80,000 bill.

Police sources have told AAP the scam is carried out by overseasbased manufacturers of phone cards commonly used by students to make cheap overseas phone calls.

The card manufacturers hack into a companys phone system, known as a private automatic branch exchange (PABX), so the calls made by card users get charged to unsuspecting victims of the scam.

"The calls were made to Romania, other parts of Eastern Europe, India, Russia and Asia out of office hours," Mr Koh said.

"If you have more than two phone lines, you are susceptible, and our owner has a line at home that allows him to dial out of the office and that facility is what these people tapped into.

"Thats how they (phone card sellers) get cheap rates for their customers, through illegally tapping phone lines."

The hackers bypass codes, passwords and other security systems as computers run through various combinations in milliseconds until they find the right one, Mr Koh said.

He said the situation reminded him of his wife once receiving a phone call from a Singaporebased friend who he now believes was using such a card.

"A Melbourne phone number was displayed but she was calling from Singapore," he said.

Camberwell Electrics owner Graeme Hawkesford said he could not afford a $20,000 bill but Telstra was not sympathetic.

"They said it was not their issue and we should have had security. But I said: We did. But we were still told we were liable and had to pay," he told AAP.

"Our phone technician said this problem had been occurring since December and as far as I am concerned they could have warned us."

The company has asked the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to investigate but Mr Koh said he was not confident the overseas criminals or even unknowing users of the cards could be tracked down.

"Surely there could be better communication between Telstra and the federal police to forewarn people and make sure numbers are secure before they rack up $20,000 bills," he said.

Swinburne University was also fighting Telstra over the bill which included charges for phone numbers the organisation did not own, said chancellery executive director Michael Thorne.

Telstra spokesman Martin Barr, in a written statement, said the company provided information to customers on preventative measures to protect themselves from such criminal activity.

"We are in talks with the customer to resolve the issue," he said.

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