Art and design






Life and style








US news

World news

Hackers rack up £12,000 phone bill and providers passed it on to me

Password box on computer screen
‘Focus’s T&Cs advise customers to have secure passwords on their phone systems to prevent scams, and warn that they are liable for fraudulent charges.’ Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

I run a small company and incur monthly phone bills of about £140. Recently, however, I was charged £3,075 for more than 200 calls to overseas premium rate numbers over a four-day period. My provider, Focus Group, was unaware of the charges until I contacted it. It placed a bar on all international calls and premium rate numbers, but advised me that a further £8,282 had been racked up in the previous 11 days.

Pennine supplies my actual telephone systems, and it and Focus are blaming each other. Pennine says Focus should have noticed the large call rates, which were occurring at night and were out of character, while Focus says Pennine should have offered a more secure system.

In the meantime, I am left with a bill for around £12,000 that I can’t afford to pay. LMN, Blackburn, Lancashire

It sounds as though you have fallen victim to a type of fraud whereby criminals hack into corporate telephone systems and install software that automatically calls premium rate numbers run by fellow gang members. It’s one of the most lucrative scams in the UK, costing companies an estimated £1.5bn a year.

Ordinarily, you would expect your provider to flag up any unusual activity on your phone lines. Focus, however, says that as a reseller of services it only receives information about customer usage from carriers periodically. “We rely on the alerts provided to us by the carriers, as they are the only ones with ‘real-time’ information about the calls that customers are making,” says a spokesperson. Its terms and conditions advise customers to have secure passwords on their phone systems to prevent scams, and warn that they are liable for any fraudulent charges.

Security is also something you might think your hardware provider would take care of. Pennine tells me that it changes all passwords from manufacturers’ settings when installing. “If we maintain the system, we retain those passwords and take responsibility for system integrity in relation to them,” says a spokesperson. “We cannot comment on an individual client; however, there have been no reported instances where passwords we are responsible for have been compromised.”

According to Ombudsman Services, both providers have questions to answer about how such a large bill accrued without anyone noticing. “If we were to investigate a complaint about the company that installed equipment, we would consider whether they changed the password to one that could easily be guessed, or allowed it to fall into the wrong hands,” says a spokesperson.

As for Focus, it says: “We would want to know what promises the provider made to the customer about monitoring their usage, and whether any usage limits had been discussed.”

You had to wait eight weeks before you were allowed to refer the complaint to the ombudsman and, in that time, Focus relented a little. It issued you with a credit note for £9,180, leaving you to pay £3,059. Exhausted by weeks of wrangling, you accepted this without invoking the ombudsman.

A police investigation found the fraudsters are based in Russia and there is nothing they can do.

If you need help email Anna Tims at or write to Your Problems, The Observer, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Include an address and phone number.

This article titled "Hackers rack up £12,000 phone bill and providers passed it on to me" was written by Anna Tims, for The Observer on Thursday 12 October 2017 06.00am


Tickets: is this the system to finally beat the touts?

You might think you’re a real fan of an artist or show, but how far would you be prepared to go to… Read more

How best to leave the world of work behind | Letters

Andy Beckett’s long read was elucidating and possibly prescient (Post-work: is the job finished?,… Read more

Ground rent: can landlords really demand six years’ payments in one hit?

I read with interest about landlords being able to claim six years’ worth of ground rent providing… Read more

How to make a big career change

Sometimes the hardest part is getting everyone else on board with the idea that you want something… Read more

Where to move for wellbeing

I’d like to be well, wouldn’t you? Well, well-er. I’m OK. Midlife dampens expectations, and I’m… Read more

Milton Keynes: UK capital of ‘right-to-buy-to-let’

The floor in Elina Apse’s house on the Netherfield council estate in Milton Keynes is so cold that… Read more

Boohoo says its ‘sale’ will end in minutes – why is it back in a couple of hours?

On Monday night I saw that the Boohoo fashion website was having a fantastic sale – “20% off… Read more

Dyson V8: why is the pricing an Absolute farce?

I wanted to buy a Dyson V8 Absolute vacuum cleaner, which appeared to drop in price around Black… Read more

When it comes to estate agents, the future could be purple

Plot the share price of Purple Bricks against Countrywide over the past few years and it tells you… Read more

Why becoming a parent is a bad career move in UK - survey

Working parents are struggling to juggle the pressures of their jobs and family life, with many… Read more