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updated 9/23/2004 7:18:55 PM ET 2004-09-23T23:18:55

Ireland has become the first country on earth to cut off direct-dialed calls to entire nations in a bid to crack down on Internet-based fraud.

The crackdown, announced this week and due to come into force Oct. 4, will block calls to 13 locations -- all but one of them far-flung islands -- to deter fraudsters from breaking into people's computers and hijacking their modems for profit.

The government-appointed Commission for Communications Regulation said it was obliged to act after receiving more than 300 complaints this year from Internet users who discovered that their connections had been altered without their knowledge -- with financially disastrous results.

"These people found out only when they got their telephone bill, which might normally be 80 euros ($100), and found out this time it was 780 euros ($1,000)," the commission's spokesman, Tom Butler, said in an interview Thursday.

He said the biggest ripoffs reported so far were two businesses that unwittingly ran up connection costs of around $15,000 and $22,000 respectively. All the victims were users of dial-up modems.

The racket often works like this: The Internet con artist bombards computers with an annoying pop-up message asking a question unrelated to modem use. The computer user clicks "yes" to get rid of it -- and thereby let a so-called "trojan" virus into the computer. The virus then reroutes the computer's dial-up connection to the distant island.

A connection that costs just cents in Ireland is transformed to $4 to $7.50 a minute, with the fraudster taking a cut of the charge. The fraudsters use remote islands, regulators say, because they typically attract the most expensive international call rates.

The commission had a four-month consultation with Internet service providers, phone companies and ripped-off customers before making its decision. During the talks, Ireland's phone companies refused to reimburse any of the customers.

The places facing cutoff are mostly in the South Pacific: the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Nauru, Norfolk Island, the Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Wallis and Fortuna.

But they also include the West African nation of Mauritania, Sao Tome and Principe off the Atlantic coast of West Africa and the Comoros islands and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Butler said the commission would review whether to remove or add nations to the cut-off list in six months.

He stressed that legitimate calls to each of the 13 locations would be allowed through, but only with operator assistance.

The commission's order, which has been accepted by telephone companies, will require operators to verify whether each call is to a bona-fide voice line, not a fee-collecting machine. Each legitimate number will be allowed to resume receiving direct-dialed calls from Ireland.

In addition, Butler said one of the affected territories, the Cook Islands, had already contacted regulators to say it planned to provide a list of legitimate phone numbers. These numbers -- a so-called "white list" -- might receive accelerated approval for direct-dial services, he said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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