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AT&T Fined $25 Million After Employees Sold Your Private Information to Shadowy “El Pelón” (The Bald Man)

El Pelon, sunburned but mighty happy AT&T call center workers were happy to oblige requests for private customer information.

“El Pelón”: Sunburned, running free, and mighty happy AT&T call center workers were happy to oblige requests for private customer information.

The Federal Communications Commission has fined AT&T $25 million after an investigation revealed AT&T customer service call center employees sold private, personal information regarding nearly 280,000 AT&T wireless customers to a shadowy figure or group known as “El Pelón,” which translates as a “bald man.”

During 2013 and 2014, employees in call centers in Mexico, Colombia and the Philippines sold customer information to third parties, presumably to help them reactivate stolen cell phones using the original owner’s contact information and at least the last four digits of the customer’s Social Security number.

When El Pelón called, more than a few AT&T employees listened and on request looked up the cell numbers given and provided customer information in return. A short time later, someone accessed AT&T’s website to submit unlock requests for the phone(s) associated with the account. Once unlocked, the phones could be sold almost anywhere around the world.

The investigation by the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau began in May 2014 after three call center employees in Mexico accessed the private information of more than 68,000 AT&T Wireless customers. That information soon led to 290,803 handset unlock requests submitted by third parties.

AT&T then learned around 40 other employees in its Colombia and Philippines call centers were also providing private customer information in return for compensation. Another 211,000 customer records were involved in those data breaches.

In return for its lax security, the FCC has handed AT&T a record-breaking fine of $25 million, and ordered AT&T to beef up security and give affected customers access to a credit monitoring service for a few years.

“The commission cannot — and will not —stand idly by when a carrier’s lax data security practices expose the personal information of hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable Americans to identity theft and fraud,” FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said. “As today’s action demonstrates, the commission will exercise its full authority against companies that fail to safeguard the personal information of their customers.”

AT&T has 30 days to pay or contest the fine. The FCC admits it still has no clear idea from AT&T exactly how many customers were victims of the ongoing data breaches. But AT&T promised to do better in the future.

“We’ve changed our policies and strengthened our operations,” AT&T said in a statement. “And we have, or are, reaching out to affected customers to provide additional information.”

UK Regulator: Don’t Call Your Wireless Service Unlimited and Then Throttle Heavy Users to Death

virgin-media-union-logo“Unlimited data” must mean exactly that in the United Kingdom if you hope to survive a challenge with British regulators over advertising and tariff claims.

Virgin Media thought itself clever offering “VIP” mobile customers two choices for service: £15 for a package that included 3GB of mobile data or £20 for “unlimited” data. Unlimited sounds like a great deal. For just $7.41 more, a customer could turn their stingy 3GB plan into unlimited data paradise. Or so one would think until navigating a nearly impenetrable thicket of fine print that suggested “you should expect speeds delivered up to 384kbps (3G). Actual speeds experienced may be higher or lower and will vary by device and location.”

Seven complainants discovered something interesting about their “unlimited data plan.” It sped along at an average speed of 6Mbps until they hit 3.5GB of usage during any billing cycle. After that, speeds were consistently reduced to 384kbps. They quickly learned Virgin had a secret throttling plan in place for their unlimited customers, couched in vague and misleading fine print that suggested customers should treat anything over 384kbps as a veritable gift from the mobile gods.

Why hide the fact Virgin has a “fair use policy” similar to many other wireless carriers that promise unlimited data only to throttle speeds after customers reach a certain amount of usage? Look again at Virgin’s pricing.

A customer could choose a £15 plan that included 3GB of usage or spend an extra £5 for what actually turns out to be just 500MB of regular speed data. If customers realized that, they would likely keep the £5 in their wallet. Instead, it went straight into Virgin’s bank account.

Virgin’s response is familiar to any customer who thought they bought an unlimited plan only to discover it cannot reasonably be used once an arbitrary limit is reached. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) summarized Virgin’s reply:

They said within all of their advertising, whenever they referred to “unlimited data” in connection with their mobile tariffs, they included an explanation within the small print that customers should expect speeds of up to 384kbit/s.  They said the restriction imposed on customers was moderate in respect of the service being advertised.

They noted that the body copy of the ad did not make any reference to internet speeds, and said that Virgin Mobile customers were never prevented from accessing the internet, no matter how much data they used.  They therefore maintained that access to data for any customer was entirely unlimited.  They said, where a customer exceeded 3.5GB in any 30-day period, they would still be able to use the internet on their device at 3G speeds.  They said that 2% of Virgin Media customers ever reached the limit in a 30-day period, which they considered was a tiny minority. They said that the customers using more than 3.5GB of data each month would be those customers who would be more aware of the advertised expected speed, and that the average consumer would therefore not have been misled.

asaThat last sentence in particular did not amuse the regulators. In the United Kingdom, making a claim of “unlimited service” means that any limitations imposed on that service affecting speed or usability must be at most moderate and clearly disclosed. Virgin failed on both.

Average 3G speeds in Britain are now 6.1Mbps and that speed does not vary much between providers. The ASA ruled that slashing speeds to a fraction of 6Mbps went way beyond the rules.

“Given the speeds we understood consumers were likely to achieve before the [throttle], we considered that they were likely to notice the drop in speeds once the restriction was applied, as had a number of the complainants,” wrote the ASA. “We considered that a reduction in speed from an average we understood to be approximately 6 Mbit/s to 384 kbit/s once the limit was reached, was more than a moderate reduction. Because we considered the limitation imposed on speeds to be more than moderate, we concluded that the claim ‘unlimited data’ was misleading.”

As a result, Virgin Media was told not to claim that a service was ‘unlimited’ if the limitations that affected the speed or usage of the service were more than moderate.

Thurman, N.Y.’s Rural ‘White Space’ Wireless Network Debuts; Speed, Capacity Blows DSL and Satellite Away

The national map of available white space channels show plenty are available in rural areas, but designing an urban network might prove challenging because open channels just don't exist.

The national map of available white space channels show plenty are available in rural areas, but designing an urban network might prove challenging because open channels often just don’t exist. In a medium-sized city like Rochester, only 11 UHF channels are available, a number likely to dwindle to close to zero if the FCC successfully reallocates much of the UHF band to wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon.

A dozen homes in the middle of the Adirondacks now have access to Internet speeds far faster than what Verizon and Frontier DSL can deliver and without the usage caps or speed throttling common with satellite Internet access.

Thurman, N.Y.’s public-private “white space” wireless network survived months of political wrangling, debate, and even intentional signal interference created by someone intent on disrupting the project. For a community that some maps depict with zero residents, the 1,200 people of Thurman are now more known than ever, winning national attention for one of the first next generation rural wireless networks to use unused space on the UHF dial to provide Internet access.

A dozen homes are the first to receive the service, with nearly 80 more on the way during phase one of the project. A $200,000 New York state broadband grant helped get the project off the ground and defray the cost of equipment installed in each subscriber’s home. But the initial cost isn’t cheap, even with the grant. New customers pay an upfront equipment fee of $292 for a receiver that costs the project up to $600. The monthly service charge is $50. Despite the price, it’s worth it to a lot of subscribers.

“The white space service is truly amazing,” said John Schroeter of Kenyontown, noting he uses the Internet for genealogical research and relied on dial-up access for the last 15 years. “I can go from one web page to another without waiting forever.”

Schroeter told Denton Publications that web pages often failed to load with dial-up, even after hours of waiting. Now he can manage to complete days of research in about an hour, without having to drive 15 miles to the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot.

Despite the fact Verizon and Frontier Communications both run their own fiber cables on the same utility poles in the region, at least 75% of the 400 homes in Thurman have no access to broadband Internet, living out of reach of even basic DSL. Many end up in the parking lot of the town hall to use Wi-Fi. Others depend on prohibitively expensive satellite access. None of the existing options were ideal. Sheila Flanagan, proprietor of Nettle Meadow Farm complained it took her hours to prepare even a small number of shipping labels to send her cheese products across the country with UPS. Speeds were so slow, she was forced to drop Williams-Sonoma as a client.

thurmanThe concept of white space wireless Internet access has already taken hold in Europe but has dragged in the United States as existing UHF television stations, wireless carriers, wireless microphone manufacturers and others who use the same frequencies white space data services also depend on defend their turf. Since white space services are unlicensed and intended for two-way communications, fears that Internet users would degrade wireless microphones or TV reception meant special care had to be taken to lower the potential for interference.

Since rural areas lack a crowded television dial, are often outside of the coverage areas of wireless carriers, and are unlikely to host many wireless mics, white space broadband would seem like the natural solution.

The project in Thurman faced a number of obstacles to overcome anyway. There were philosophical objections from tea party conservatives who objected to tax dollars paying for the “luxury” of Internet access when satellite service is available. Some residents wanted a fiber to the home solution, one that was likely financially out of reach for the small community. Still others wanted the money spent on a fiber link between the town and Time Warner Cable, that might then be enticed to wire homes in the rural community. In the end, the community decided to go ahead with an advanced wireless network, citing a number of factors familiar to many living in rural areas:

  1. thurman-nySince the town is located entirely within the Adirondack Park, there are prohibitions on placing communications towers on nearby peaks or other high spots that could spoil the view;
  2. The heavily forested and mountainous area made a traditional Wireless ISP project difficult because those networks need line of sight communications. White space wireless signals easily penetrate through trees and can stay intact across hilly terrain;
  3. Although not as bandwidth capable as fiber optics, white space networks are capable of delivering 10Mbps broadband per UHF channel. Most networks bond multiple UHF channels together to support even faster speeds and expand capacity;
  4. The chances of creating interference for other spectrum users was low in Thurman, which is a four-hour drive from New York and far enough north of Albany to avoid interfering with signals from the state capital. Even wireless carriers hug their cell towers along I-87, a respectable distance away;
  5. The network has redundant backhaul access to fiber from both Verizon and Frontier, neither of which show the slightest interest in expanding services into the community on their own;
  6. The grant was limited in scope and white space broadband qualified so it proved the most economical choice for a community that was no stranger to fights over money, engaging in political battles over issues like the cost of building a salt shed and auditing the on-hand count of trash bags.
The Thurman white space broadband project hides base station antennas in the tree canopy.

The Thurman white space broadband project hides base station antennas in the tree canopy.

Tests provided the project managers with an idea where to place needed wireless antennas, often hidden within tree canopies. But at least one disgruntled resident made a point of creating intentional interference on the channels the project managers were testing, committing a federal offense along the way. That was quickly overcome and the equipment has been placed and will soon be joined by installations in nearby neighborhoods, broadening the reach of the service.

Recent advancements in white space technology have also allowed speed and capacity to improve dramatically. Equipment now transmits its exact GPS-identified location to a national database which sends back an authorized list of “white space” channels each transmitter can use to provide the service. If a new licensed broadcaster takes to the airwaves, a database update will lock out that channel in the area, preventing interference.

Although exact speed data was not available at press time, Sally Feihel demonstrated she could successfully stream an episode of a classic Andy Griffith Show on her iPod at the same time a videoconference was underway and someone else was downloading a movie, all without skipping a beat. In fact, there is so much speed and capacity built into the system, its managers say speed throttles and usage caps are completely unnecessary.

Most users agreed the wireless network far outpaced satellite and DSL and some believed it was even faster than Time Warner Cable Internet access they experienced elsewhere. (Time Warner Cable doesn’t come near the community today.)

Constructing the network only took several months, but the politics that often surrounds public-private initiatives and the need for grant funding in income-challenged rural America can tie up projects much longer than that. The need for decent and affordable Internet access often will cross party lines, especially in rural communities.

New York’s state broadband expansion fund could help expand similar projects to other bypassed areas of the state. That investment may actually save taxpayers from paying high broadband bills indefinitely.

Residents are eagerly waiting for the next expansion to begin down Valley, Garnet Lake and Glen-Athol Roads. Moving beyond that may take more grant funding.

“White space is saving us $90 per month, and it’s far faster than satellite ever was,” another resident said.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/MetroFocus A New way to Bring Broadband to Rural Towns in Upstate New York 2014.mp4

MetroFocus showed the initial planning and testing phases of Thurman’s new white space wireless network, including interviews with town officials and a tour of the community. (4:23)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Dynamic Spectrum in Action How TV White Space Devices Work.mp4

TV white space wireless broadband networks are designed to avoid interference with other licensed spectrum users. See how the technology works in this short video. (2:27)

Magnifique: France’s Free Offers Up to Four Family Members $15 Mobile Unlimited Call/SMS + 20GB Data Plan

150px-Free_mobile_2011.svgFrench ISP and mobile provider Free has boosted its promotion for inexpensive wireless calling with a family plan that provides unlimited calling within France, its territories overseas, the United States, Canada, Alaska, Hawaii, China, and nearly 100 other countries, unlimited SMS/MMS messaging, and up to 20GB of 4G data for $15 a month. The old off-promotion price (and for non-bundled customers) is around $20 a month.

The promotion increases to four the number of family members that can participate, which means taking full advantage will result in a monthly cell bill of around $60.

A comparable Family Share plan from AT&T offering 20GB of rollover 4G data costs customers $150 a month… for one line.

Apple Stores Accused of Allowing Crooks to Buy Smartphones and Bill Them to Random AT&T/Verizon Customers

Phillip Dampier March 12, 2015 AT&T, Consumer News, Verizon, Video, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment
KMGH Denver reporter Marshall Zelweger holds up some of the emails received in the newsroom from victims that had new iPhone 6 smartphones billed to their account. (Image: KMGH-TV/Denver)

KMGH Denver reporter Marshall Zelinger holds up some of the 50 emails received in the newsroom from victims that had new iPhone 6 smartphones billed to their Verizon Wireless account in February. (Image: KMGH-TV/Denver)

If you want a new iPhone 6 and don’t want to bother paying for it, buy one from an Apple store and they just might bill your purchase to a unknowing third-party with few or no questions asked.

The scam, which first emerged last month, has now spread coast to coast and now involves more than 100 illegally obtained iPhones that victims complain were billed to them with little or no verification by Apple or wireless carriers. Many of those orders, but not all, originated inside Apple retail outlets and AT&T told one Connecticut victim they are being hampered in their fraud investigation by Apple, which is allegedly not cooperating with the wireless carrier.

In Denver, dozens of victims shared their stories with KMGH-TV back in February when the fraud first appeared.

“We have heard from more than 50 customers who said their accounts have been charged for new iPhone 6s, and new service plans or altered service plans, that they never requested,” reporters told viewers.

Verizon Wireless and their customers were the original targets, and Verizon initially blamed their own customers for the fraud.

Denver area resident Terri Olson was livid after Verizon accused her son of ordering new iPhones on her business account.

“He happened to be in the office that day,” said Olson. “We’re like, ‘Wow, he’s here. He’s not on the phone with Verizon.'”

Verizon promised it would drop the charges and tighten security on her account, but two days later, Verizon called confirming they had just accepted and shipped an order for four new iPads.

“She explained to me that she had my son on the other phone line, on hold. Funny thing, he was here with me,” Olson told KMGH. “We proceed, later that day, to get an email confirmation from Verizon that our order is shipping to Henderson, Nevada — (the order) that was supposedly stopped.”

Olson was able to get FedEx confirmation the four iPads were indeed sent to Henderson and signed for by someone, and it was not her son.

“It’s no way to run a business. If I did this to my customers, oh my God, we’d be out of business,” said Olson.

A few days later, more than $2,000 in fraudulent charges showed up on her Verizon bill, and the company was stalling on crediting her account.

“Basically, I’m risking my entire fleet of cell phones and data plans and iPads and everything because I don’t want to pay thousands of dollars ahead, waiting for this supposed credit,” said Olson. “I have already gone up the food chain. I’ll continue to go up the food change. We’re not taking no for an answer.”

Another Denver victim suddenly received news he was the proud new owner of four new iPhone 6 smartphones from Verizon Wireless, despite the fact he was an AT&T customer and had never authorized the purchase of the phones or the two-year contracts that came with them. A Verizon store told him if he didn’t return the phones, he’d be on the hook for their full value — $449 each as well as $160 in service charges.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KMGH Denver More than 50 Verizon customers tell 7NEWS they are victims of unauthorized charges on their accounts 2-10-15.mp4

In February, KMGH in Denver reported more than 50 viewers were billed for illegally obtained Apple iPhones charged to their Verizon Wireless accounts. (2:35)

Verizon couldn’t believe the security problem was on their end or at their authorized resellers, so they initially blamed customers in a statement:

As we have stated before, there is no evidence of a data breach at Verizon Wireless that would put our customers’ information at risk. In order for us to look into this further, we will need to work with our customers one-on-one.

In fraud cases, we often find customers have been tricked or persuaded to provide information that allows fraudsters to compromise their accounts. But without the further information you have offered to provide on these particular cases, we cannot determine what has happened.

That triggered a social media backlash.

“For them to suggest that this was phishing and effectively blame the customer is even more appalling,” wrote one victim. “I realize phishing happens too and folks are duped, but that is not the way this happened in my case.”

A North Carolina church was billed for 17 illegally-obtained iPhone 6 smartphones, totaling more than $10,000. (Image: WAVY-TV/Norfolk)

A North Carolina church was billed for 17 illegally-obtained iPhone 6 smartphones, totaling more than $10,000. (Image: WAVY-TV/Norfolk)

Verizon Wireless has been the victim of phishing attempts inviting customers to use their Verizon Wireless login credentials and a four digit billing code which many might assume to be the last four digits of their Social Security number to get a one-time credit on their account. The link actually leads to a fraudulent website, where information obtained by the hacker could be used to log into a legitimate customer’s Verizon Wireless account. But a Verizon store representative tells Stop the Cap! that alone would not be enough to complete a purchase at a retail store.

“A phishing fraud victim would be providing the crook login information that could be used to order equipment off Verizon’s website, which seems to be a lot less risky than walking into a retail store to commit fraud,” a Verizon store employee not authorized to speak to the media tells Stop the Cap! “Verizon confirms direct online orders right away with customers, so they would know immediately if there was something wrong with their account. They wouldn’t usually know if a third-party retail reseller billed a phone to their account until the bill or the phone came.”

After the number of fraud reports ballooned, Verizon Wireless evidently tightened its own internal security because by late February, the fraudsters moved on to AT&T.

In Hartford, Conn., Meg O’Brien found out she was a victim when her own phones stopped working.

“Three of our four phones had no service,” O’Brien told Hartford’s WFSB-TV. When she called AT&T, they knew straight away what was happening. “They responded by saying ‘oh – hold on a minute – there’s obviously some fraud…you have three new iPhone 6’s’ and I said ‘ah no we have no iPhone 6’s’.”

AT&T told O’Brien she was far and away not the only victim, and AT&T was concerned because Apple reportedly was not cooperative assisting AT&T in tracking down the Apple retail store(s) where the theft originated. AT&T did confirm the thieves were able to acquire the equipment by charging it to random AT&T wireless accounts.

The Apple store(s) involved allegedly did not need proof of identity or a credit card to complete the transactions, and that leaves O’Brien fuming.

She told WFSB she found it unbelievable Apple stores were handing out phones to customers with nothing more than an AT&T customer’s phone number, and she’s unhappy Apple isn’t being forthcoming.

“So I have no idea what other information has been sold or bought or anything,” O’Brien said. She is filing a complaint with Connecticut’s attorney general.

An Apple spokesperson tells us nobody is supposed to be able to walk out of an Apple store with a new phone without a complete wireless account number, the last four digits of the account holder’s Social Security number, photo ID, and final approval from a wireless carrier. Apple claims the purchase met all four criteria, something O’Brien disputes.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WFSB Hartford Hacker charged 6 iPhones to woman ATT account 3-11-15.mp4

WFSB in Hartford reports AT&T customer Meg O’Brien was victimized by fraudulent purchases at an Apple retail store Apple is refusing to name. (2:39)

The Fountain of Life Ministries in Elizabeth City, N.C., has been victimized at least twice by a crook using the church’s name to get at least 17 iPhone 6 smartphones for himself, leaving the church with the bill from AT&T.

special reportChurch employees first learned they were targets when the thief tried to acquire the phones from Verizon Wireless, which apparently learned its lesson from earlier fraud cases and rejected the purchase.

AT&T was more receptive, authorizing the purchase of more than a dozen phones bought on different days.

“I’m just amazed somebody would do that,” Pastor Preston Pitchford told WAVY-TV.

Church employee Christy Wells was even more stunned when the bill arrived.

“When I saw it was from AT&T, I was like, I know this has got to be him. He probably succeeded,” Wells told WAVY. “I see a charge to Fountain of Life for $10,000, and I knew that wasn’t for us. Who would even think to do something like this?”

The church doesn’t use iPhones and doesn’t have an account with AT&T.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WAVY Norfolk Church billed 10K for fraudulent iPhone purchases 3-3-15.flv

The Fountain of Life Ministries in Elizabeth City, N.C. was victimized twice by iPhone 6 fraud. Verizon Wireless rejected the fraudster’s first attempt, but AT&T accepted his second… for 17 iPhones. From WAVY-TV in Portsmouth, Va. (2:12)

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