MPs have agreed to raise the maximum fine that can be imposed against companies who operate "rogue dialler" software that hijacks a dial-up Internet user's Web connection.
On Wednesday, Parliament agreed that firms that abuse premium rate services should be liable to fines of up to £250,000, up from the existing limit of £100,000, from 30 December.
Many thousands of dial-up Internet users have fallen victim to rogue diallers throughout 2005. These are applications that, once installed on a dial-up user's PC, secretly dial a premium rate number. This has led some people to run up call charges of hundreds of pounds.
It's thought that many rogue diallers are spread using Trojan horses contained within spam emails.
Last month, Ofcom warned that there was "growing evidence of consumer harm" arising from rogue diallers. Victims include Microsoft UK's chief security advisor Ed Gibson, who admitted in September that he had been hit with a £450 bill after becoming infected.
According to ICSTIS, which regulates the premium rate market, the maximum fine had to be raised because companies conducting rogue dialler scams would often generate more than £100,000 before they were caught. ICSTIS is now examining whether it can impose a separate fine for each individual offence, which could push the actual maximum fine into the millions of pounds.
"Telephony and the Internet are crucial to a modern, global economy. All of us expect to use them without the threat of exploitation by rogue companies prepared to exploit genuine consumers," said Alun Michael MP, minister for industry and the regions. "This new fine level helps ensure that ICSTIS has the tools it needs to protect consumers and build trust in the premium rate payment mechanism."
The higher fines will also apply to fraudulent text messages and voicemails that tell people they have won a prize draw.