Inside the TalkTalk ‘Indian scam call centre’

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TalkTalk has warned its customers to be on the alert for scammers

TalkTalk customers are being targeted by an industrial-scale fraud network in India, according to whistleblowers who say they were among hundreds of staff hired to scam customers of the British telecoms giant.

The scale of the criminal operation has been detailed by the three sources, who say they were employed by two front-companies set up by a gang of professional fraudsters.

The sources describe working in “call centres” in two Indian cities.

They say as many as 60 “employees” work in shifts in each office, phoning TalkTalk customers and duping them into giving access to their bank accounts.

The whistleblowers say they were given a script in which they were told to claim they were calling from TalkTalk.

They say they then convinced victims to install a computer virus.

A separate team would use that virus to gain access to victims’ online banking, they add.

While it has not been possible to independently verify their claims, the sources have given highly detailed accounts of the scammers’ tactics, which correlate very closely with previous reports of fraud targeting TalkTalk customers.

The software they named also matches that identified by TalkTalk in its own website guidance on what to watch out for in a scam call.

In addition, a victim of the fraud shown the call centre script has confirmed it matched the one read out to her when she was conned out of £5,000.

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One of the whistleblowers shared this screenshot of one of the scripts

TalkTalk was hit by a cyber-attack in October 2015, but that hack appears to be unrelated to the Indian fraud.

Instead, it is alleged the scam is linked to problems in a company hired by the British broadband provider.

In 2011, TalkTalk outsourced some of its call-centre work to the Kolkata (Calcutta) office of Wipro, one of India’s largest IT service companies.

Last year, three Wipro employees were arrested on suspicion of selling TalkTalk customer data.

A source in Kolkata, who did not want to be named, alleges the same data was obtained by a criminal gang, with USB sticks full of data trading hands at parties.

The criminals then used the data to operate at least three call centres, according to the whistleblowers, where staff work in shifts earning about £120 per month to perpetrate an intricate but highly successful scam.

They say they phone TalkTalk customers, using the stolen data to convince victims they are genuine employees of the company.

They then convince the victims their computers are infected, and offer to fix the problems.

Through this, the whistleblowers say, the victim is tricked into installing a virus that gives the scammer complete control over their machine.

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The leaked scripts indicate workers were told how to fool victims into believing them

The victims are then offered a compensation payment, for which they must log in to online banking, they add.

Thanks to the virus, the fraudsters are able to gain access to the victims’ bank accounts when they log in.

They say they use various methods to spirit away the money: in some cases pretending to make erroneous overpayments, then convincing victims to repay the extra amount.

In other cases, victims have said the scammers were able to set up a new payee without their knowledge and transfer the money out of the account directly.

Why the whistleblowers appear credible:

Although the BBC cannot be sure of the whistleblowers claims, the following suggested they were telling the truth:

  • the three whistleblowers approached us seemingly independently of each other; the information they shared – including the scripts they were told to read out – correlated to a high degree
  • during extensive online conversations, they revealed in-depth knowledge of the scammers’ techniques, much of which is not in the public domain and matches the experience of TalkTalk fraud victims
  • one of the whistleblowers shared a copy of his driver’s licence, confirming his identity
  • the whistleblowers said they were ignorant of the full scale of the fraud, because the eventual bank account theft was handled by a separate, smaller team in a different office
  • at one stage, two of the whistleblowers attempted to share the information of UK victims they had called, and asked us to warn the victims before they fell for the scam

Dozens of customers are said to have been affected, and many have lost thousands of pounds as a result of the fraud.

Leigh Day solicitors is representing about 20 people who have between them lost almost £100,000.

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The scripts suggest TalkTalk customers were told that inaction would cause their computers to stop working

Questions remain about the speed with which TalkTalk responded to the data breach at Wipro, which is believed to have been in late 2014.

It was only in October 2015, after the apparently unrelated cyber-attack, that TalkTalk began a “forensic review” leading to the arrests at Wipro.

“We are aware that there are criminals targeting a number of UK and international companies, and we take our responsibility to protect our customers very seriously,” said a spokeswoman for TalkTalk.

“This is why we launched our Beat The Scammers campaign, helping all our customers to keep themselves from safe from scammers no matter who they claim to be, while our network also proactively blocks over 90 million scam and nuisance calls a month.”

Wipro did not respond to requests for comment.

When contacted, the two companies named by the whistleblowers strongly denied any knowledge of criminal behaviour, and insisted their businesses were legitimate.

Geoff White is a freelance investigative journalist, who has also reported for Channel 4 News

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Weather supercomputing ‘heads to Italy’

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The Italian data and supercomputing centre would be built on the site of an old tobacco factory

The next-generation supercomputer that will drive Europe’s medium-range weather forecasts looks set to be housed in Bologna, Italy, from 2020.

It would succeed the current system based in Reading, UK.

Member states of the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) made the indicative decision to relocate the facility on Wednesday.

Detailed negotiations will now be held with Italian authorities. The intention is to confirm the choice in June.

That is the date of the next full Council meeting of the ECMWF.

The bid from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna Region to erect a new €50m (£43m) building on the site of an old tobacco factory was regarded as the leading contender, according to an evaluation panel.

A proposal from Finland is back-up should the legal, financial and technical discussions over the next few months suddenly fall over.

The ECMWF is an independent intergovernmental organisation supported by 22 full member states from Europe, with another 12 co-operating nations.

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The ECMWF will be working closely with the European Space Agency on the Aeolus satellite

Its supercomputer system ingests weather observations to run models that construct forecasts out to 15 days ahead.

These forecasts are then shared with the member national meteorological agencies, such as Meteo France and the UK’s Met Office.

The ECMWF’s HQ has been sited at Shinfield Park on the outskirts of Reading since the organisation’s set-up four decades ago.

Its first supercomputer, a CRAY-1A, was installed in 1978. The machines have been regularly updated, but the existing Reading buildings are not considered capable of meeting the technical requirements of the next device.

The dual CRAY-XC40 system currently running the numerical models will therefore be the last supercomputing to be done at Shinfield Park.

“It has been clear for a while now that the current data centre facility does not offer the required flexibility for future growth and changes in high-performance computing technology,” ECMWF’s Director-General Florence Rabier said in a statement.

“As laid out in our 2025 Strategy launched last September, we believe that continuing to improve weather predictions relies heavily on our ability to support our science with proportionate computing power. Intermediary goals to 2020 already require that the Centre’s next supercomputers should provide a tenfold increase in our computational capacity.”

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The ECMWF in Reading is engaged in research as well as operational forecasting

ECMWF staff do not need to be in the same location as the supercomputing facilities and there is no plan to move them as well.

The centre employs more than 300 people in Reading, many of them engaged in advanced meteorological research.

They will, for example, be working very closely with the European Space Agency later this year when it launches the British-built Aeolus satellite. This spacecraft is due to gather the first truly global, three-dimensional view of winds on Earth, providing a significant boost to the skill of medium-range forecasting.

A spokesperson for the centre said the movement of data storage and supercomputing out of the UK would have no impact on research activities in the UK. The ECMWF remained committed to Reading, she told the BBC.

Half of its €100m (£85m) budget comes through direct contributions from member states. The other half comes from the European Union, which contracts the ECMWF to perform climate change and atmospheric monitoring under its Copernicus environmental programme.

Brexit should have no impact on that arrangement, the spokesperson said, as the ECMWF already includes non-EU member states.

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Uber uses ‘secret program’ Greyball to hide from regulators

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Uber said its Greyball software was used to “deny ride requests to fraudulent users”

Uber has been using a secret program to prevent undercover regulators from shutting down the taxi-hailing service in cities around the world.

The software, called Greyball, sought to identify officials trying to catch its drivers and deny them service, the New York Times reports.

Uber has frequently been at odds with governments – and with competitors.

Greyball was used to secure early access to cities where its operations had not been authorised.

In most cases, local officials wanted to make sure the company was subjected to the same conditions of service required by the legislation.

The New York Times said existence of the Greyball program was confirmed by four current and former Uber employees, who were not named.

Greyball identified regulators posing as ordinary passengers, by collecting data on the location used when ordering a taxi and determining whether this coincided with government offices.

It also checked credit card information to establish whether the user is linked to an institution or law enforcement authority.

Uber, the report adds, even visited phone shops to trace smartphones bought by city officials setting up multiple accounts in an effort to catch the company’s drivers.

Once individuals suspected of attempting to entrap drivers were identified, they would be served a “fake” version of the Uber app, with fictitious cabs on view, and where they were successful in ordering a real one, they would have their booking cancelled. Local officials contend this is illegal.

Read more

“This program denies ride requests to fraudulent users who are violating our terms of service,” Uber said in a statement.

“Whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers,” it added.

It comes in the same week that the chief executive of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was forced to apologise after a video emerged of him swearing at one of the company’s drivers. Just two weeks earlier he apologised for “abhorrent” sexism at the company.

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Has wearable tech had its day?

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Nordic Walkers / Facebook

With the clicking of poles and a determined stride, the Winchester Nordic Walking group is a distinctive sight as its members pound the Hampshire countryside.

The day I bumped into them, all but one was using some form of fitness tracker.

A few Fitbits, a Garmin smartwatch, a couple of phone apps and one basic pedometer – and all, they claimed, were roughly counting the same paces.

“Before I had a watch it didn’t bother me, now I’ve got one I hate being without it,” said group leader Linda Bidder.

Christiane Livingstone oversees Nordic walking groups around the UK.

“Fitness trackers (of all sorts) are incredibly popular in my groups,” she said.

“People love to know how far they have walked and even compete with each other.”

And yet the wearables market has had a rollercoaster ride in recent months.

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The Fitbit brand is popular but has reported slower sales

This time last year analysts were making multi-billion dollar forecasts for the developers of health trackers and smartwatches, and Apple was boldly selling a $10,000 gold edition of the Apple Watch.

But by November 2016 Smartwatch shipments declined by 51.6% year-on-year, according to a report by market analysts IDC.

Jawbone, once a popular fitness tracker brand, confirmed to TechCrunch that it is leaving the consumer market and focusing on healthcare providers.

Microsoft has removed its Fitness Band on its online store (although it is still available on retail giant Amazon) and crucially no longer provides the Band developer kits.

Fitbit remains a key brand name at the heart of the fitness tracker revolution – and it acquired one of its rivals, the Pebble Watch – but it was recently reported to be laying off staff, and founder James Park said the firm experienced “softer than expected” sales during the recent Christmas period.

10,000 steps

Various devices claim to measure heart rate, sleep, activity and count calories.

Counting steps is probably the most common use of wearable devices – but recently experts have questioned whether the golden goal of walking 10,000 steps a day is actually worthwhile, and a US study concluded that health trackers did not aid weight loss.

Analyst Ben Wood, from CCS Insight, was such a wearables enthusiast that he still wears one on each wrist – but even he speaks more cautiously these days about the sector overall.

“The reality is these devices have stalled in the marketplace,” he told BBC Radio 4′s You and Yours programme.

“A lot of people have got them, a lot of people like them but the spectacular explosive growth that we anticipated hasn’t really occurred.”

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Ben Wood

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Ben Wood (right) was interviewed by Peter White from BBC Radio 4′s You and Yours programme

Ben Wood thinks there’s an engagement issue – after a while these devices don’t tell you anything new.

There’s also the battery issue, and the fact that many of the older and cheaper varieties aren’t water resistant.

Furthermore, Simon Bryant from Futuresource says many wearables aren’t yet independent enough and rely on being tethered to a smartphone, or replicate a functionality, such as step counting, that the handset already has.

However Mr Bryant believes that while wearables may be down, they are not yet out.

“We feel the slowdown is temporary and the market will accelerate this year,” he said.

He thinks that improved power, appearance, and mobile pay options could give them a boost alongside a maturing user group.

Things do appear to be looking up. Sales figures for 2016 just released by IDC indicate 25% market growth year-on-year, with Fitbit taking the largest share – followed by budget brand Xiaomi.

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According to one report Garmin shipped 6.1 million wearable devices in 2016

One of the top five sellers is Garmin, which has focused on the dedicated fitness market.

Theo Axford, senior product marketing manager at Garmin UK, told the BBC that while the market had become “very competitive” the firm had not experienced declining sales.

“Brands must ensure that they are meeting the needs of the customer and always delivering value,” he said.

“Whilst the entry space has become largely commoditised, customers that have bought into the technology as a first foray into wearables are now looking for, and demanding more.

“The advocacy we’ve experienced for our devices over many years in what was a fairly specialist market has now become much more mainstream, and customers are looking for a brand with the specialist expertise and a legacy they can trust.”

And what about smartwatches – once feted as the ultimate smartphone accessory with multiple tracking functions and apps?

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The first edition of the Apple Watch gave the market a boost

Ben Wood argues that they are “a solution that’s looking for a problem” – but robust sales of the Apple Watch and Google’s current rollout of a new operating source for Android-powered watches, Android Wear 2.0, suggest the industry has not given up on them yet.

In December 2016 Apple CEO Tim Cook said sales growth was “off the charts” following the release of the Apple Watch 2 in September, and Android watchmaker Samsung showed the biggest growth year-on-year in IDC’s report.

“The smart wearables market is changing,” said Ramos Llamas from IDC.

“Health and fitness remains a major focus, but once these devices become connected to a cellular network, expect unique applications and communications capabilities to become available.”

And this will allow them to make a bid for freedom, he believes.

“This will also solve another key issue: freeing the device from the smartphone, creating a stand-alone experience.”

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Amazon typo knocked websites offline

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Amazon is the world’s largest provider of cloud computing services

Amazon has said that a simple typo was the cause of several high-profile websites and services being knocked offline earlier in the week.

Hours of problems struck services like QA forum Quora, and Giphy, an image hosting service.

The sites rely on hosting provided by Amazon Web Services (AWS) – a cloud computing provider.

A typo made during a routine debugging of the AWS billing system caused the failure.

“Unfortunately, one of the inputs to the command was entered incorrectly and a larger set of servers was removed than intended,” Amazon said in an online statement.

The error required a full restart that “took longer than expected”.

Around 150,000 websites and services rely on AWS.

Among those affected by the failure was – somewhat ironically – Down Detector, a service that tracks downtime at major websites.

Amazon, which is the world’s largest provider of cloud services, says it is now making changes to help prevent a similar incident occurring in the future.

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IBM gives out-of-office patent to public

Out of office email

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People have been routinely using out-of-office systems for many years

IBM has been granted a patent for its out-of-office email system but has promised that it won’t enforce it.

The “invention”, officially recognised in January, is described by the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) as “stupid patent of the month”.

The patent was filed in 2010 at a time when many tech firms made grabs for all kinds of technological innovations.

IBM said that it would “dedicate the patent to the public”.

It has led to accusations that the US Patent Office (USPTO) is out of touch.

In a statement, the IBM said that it had notified “the USPTO that it foregoes its rights to the patent. As a result, the patent is released into the public domain”.

Holiday postcard

The described patent included details such as how a user needed to input “availability such as a start date, an end date and at least one availability indicator message”.

The only feature of the system that differs from existing out-of-office systems is one that automatically notifies people a few days before the person goes on holiday so that they can prepare for a colleague’s absence, according to EFF.

It likened this change to “asking for a patent on the idea of sending a postcard, not from a vacation, but to let someone know you will go on a vacation”.

It also criticised the US Patent Office for granting such a patent.

“It never considered any of the many, many existing real-world systems that pre-dated IBM’s application,” it writes.

Patent bonanza

There has been widespread criticism of patents being granted for abstract ideas rather than for brand new technical advances.

Chris Price, a UK and European patent lawyer at law firm EIP, said of the time taken to grant the patent: “Seven years does seem a little bit on the long side but it is by no means unusual for it to take that long to grant patents.”

He added: “In Europe, patents are granted for inventions that solve technical problems and if they are seen to address something that is business-related or an administrative process they are not given. In the US the situation is historically more permissive.”

Earlier this year IBM announced that it had broken the US patent record with more than 8,000 patents granted to its inventors in 2016. This marks the 24th consecutive year that it has won the title.

Its patent output covers a diverse range of inventions, including breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, cognitive computers and cybersecurity.

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Windows 10 to offer update ‘snoozes’

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Microsoft will enable Windows 10 users to choose when security updates are installed once they arrive rather than enforcing them straightaway.

Users have complained that the reboots required for some updates, which cannot currently be deferred, are disruptive.

People using Windows 10 devices will now be able to schedule an update within three days of receiving notification, the firm said in a blog.

However, delaying security updates can be risky, experts say.

Apple customers can already delay Mac Operating System updates or opt for them to be automatically installed overnight – which includes carrying out any essential reboots.

The change to Windows, part of a project called Creators Update, came in response to complaints about enforced reboots, said John Cable, a director of program management at Microsoft.

“What we heard back most explicitly was that you want more control over when Windows 10 installs updates,” he wrote.

“We also heard that unexpected reboots are disruptive if they happen at the wrong time.”

The three-day window is designed to give people more control over when updates occur – and they can also change the time they have chosen while they are waiting.

As part of Creative Update, Microsoft is also exploring changes to privacy settings, Mr Cable said.

‘Enemy of security’

Cybersecurity expert Prof Alan Woodward, from Surrey University, said that delaying updates could help hackers.

“I’m not 100% sold on the idea precisely because quite often these updates have critical security fixes in them, and you really want them on people’s machines as quickly as possible,” he told the BBC.

“Once a critical flaw gets understood by hackers they will be out there trying to exploit it.

“Convenience and complexity are often the enemy of security.”

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Can Snapchat keep its young fans?

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There are now glasses for Snapchat, with a built-in camera

As the owner of the Snapchat messaging app targets a valuation of about $24bn (£20bn), one question hangs in the air: will it stay cool?

Users of the popular service are wondering how Snapchat might change as efforts to make it profitable evolve.

Most of Snapchat’s users are aged between 13 and 24, and many advertisers choose to target people in their teens and 20s via the app.

Snapchatters out shopping in London spoke to the BBC about why the service seems to resonate so strongly with young people – and whether they’ll stick with it should advertising become more prevalent.

“You don’t have to go through a news feed,” said Dominic, 21, who uses the app every day.

This is a key benefit, it seems – Snapchat isn’t as laden with information as Facebook, for example.

“And it’s so short – I’ve not got patience to read big statuses. It’s visual.”

Media captionPutting Snapchat to the test

Plus, importantly, you can see which of your friends have viewed your latest post.

Many young people that use Snapchat are well aware that older generations don’t quite get it.

“My mum couldn’t work it,” said Grace, also 21.

Dominic agreed this was important – it means he feels comfortable to just “post whatever”.

“The older people as well, they wouldn’t post much, because they’re just making dinner and doing the housework,” he says.

“Young people are doing more fun things like going out.”

Snapped up

This has always been Snapchat’s unique selling proposition. It’s seen as cool.

But growing an audience and trying to make a profit necessitates tweaking what was once an app where people merely sent pictures back and forth to one another.

One of the original attractions was that those pictures would expire shortly after they were viewed – but since summer last year, users have been able to save them via a feature called Snapchat Memories.

“I kind of preferred it when it was just simple, send pictures that disappeared,” said Charlie, also in his early 20s.

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Snapchat has been particularly popular with those who love to take selfies

There are already advertisements on Snapchat, but it is possible the app will feature more as Snap searches for that elusive profit.

“If there were adverts all the time, I wouldn’t go on it,” added Charlie, however.

He and his friend Claire agreed on another point: if they had to pay to use it, that would definitely discourage them.

Olivia is another Snapchat fan who’s been using the app for a few years.

But when Snapchat launched filters that could be sponsored by companies in 2015, the move “put her off”, she said.

Seeking a niche

For her, Snapchat is already less enticing than it used to be.

“They need a new niche that will attract people back,” she said.

It’s worth remembering a young audience, while often highly engaged with social media, can also be somewhat fickle.

Beatrice, 29, was blogging about her experiences as a student in London, and using Snapchat, when she noticed a sudden shift.

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Snapchat filters let users wear digital masks, try out a new look or even change the shape of their face

“Everyone started using Instagram Stories [a Snapchat-like way of sending annotated photos to contacts],” she said.

“Everybody moved to Instagram Stories and I lost a lot of followers – so I decided to use that [instead].”

As other services have offered Snapchat-like interactions, Snapchat has also evolved, incorporating new features such as video chat.

Niila, who is 19 and from Finland, said: “It’s not so good when applications start to be the same as one another.”

It is important, then, that Snapchat continues to be seen as somehow different.

Though, interestingly, perhaps the idea the app remains largely unknown to older generations is not such a crucial factor for all.

Niila’s mother used it, he said.

“It’s not only for young people,” said Kia, 19, also from Finland.

Perhaps Melissa, 23, who has been using Snapchat for four or five years, hit the nail on the head.

She likes how the app has obviously been designed to appeal to young people and suggested there might not be any need to over-think its appeal.

“It’s just a fun way to send pictures to your friends,” she said.

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App creates selfies with avatars of dead relatives

An app that lets people speak to avatars of dead relatives and take selfies with them is being developed in South Korea.

The BBC’s Chris Foxx asked Eun Jin Lim from Elrois, the company making it, whether people might find the idea strange.

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