Steve Pardoe's Cellnet Pages

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Letter to John Cross, BT Cellnet's Head of Security

Cellnet are taking money from the credit card accounts of thousands of innocent people...   ...even though they haven't got a Cellnet phone!

I wrote to Mr John Cross, BT Cellnet's Head of Security, on 28. January 2000, to put to the test Cellnet's claims that they will cooperate in tracing phones which have been used in fraudulent credit-card top-ups. It follows Cellnet's theft of 30 from the Company Barclaycard account of one of my colleagues on 18. November, and my conversations with Mr Cross and the Police.

Update 21. February 2000:

Interestingly, BT Cellnet's PR firm, Fishburn Hedges, visited this website the day before John Cross appeared on the latest (of five) BBC1 "Watchdog" programmes to feature Cellnet (shown 17th February), presumably to prepare their response. Fishburn Hedges downloaded my letter to Mr Cross, again presumably so that he could be primed on the issues raised, and on how to account for his decision to ignore it. They were back again on the day of transmission, for a good look round the site.

BT Cellnet's willful failure to respond confirms that their promises of cooperation are false, and Mr Cross's remarks in the programme should be seen in this context.

Update 7. February 2000:

No reply having been received from Cellnet, I have written a third letter to the Office of Fair Trading.

(I know that Cellnet received my letter, as it was sent by recorded delivery, and they also downloaded the letter as a web page on 2. February, so they can hardly deny receiving it).

Here is the text of my letter, formatted for the Web

John Cross Esq., Head of Security
BT Cellnet
260, Bath Road
Berks    SL1 4DX

28. January 2000   
Dear Mr Cross,

Re: BT Cellnet Credit Card Fraud: repeated request for cooperation

Thank you for taking my telephone call on 16. December 1999. We discussed the unauthorised debiting by BT Cellnet of the Company Barclaycard of my colleague, Mr DW [name abbreviated here], who has never had a Cellnet phone, in the light of your company's claims to have improved credit card security, which were obviously at variance with Mr [DW]'s recent experience. I am enclosing a copy of the Statement on which the debit is recorded. Barclaycard take the account balance by Direct Debit from the company's bank account, and since I am a proprietor of the company in question, the theft was essentially against me. I am now asking again for your help in resolving this matter.

I think we can agree that this debit occurred as a result of a fraudulent top-up of a Cellnet mobile telephone, by someone using Mr [DW]'s credit card number, presumably gleaned from a recent transaction. As you know, only the card number and expiry date are required in order to top up the majority of Cellnet pre-pay phones in use, and since this information is in plain view to anyone with whom one makes a debit or credit card transaction, and is recorded on the merchant's copy of sales receipts, your system has been made deliberately and outrageously insecure.

The modest sum in question has now been refunded by Barclaycard, but I regard the matter as far from closed. During our conversation, I referred you to my website at which has been reporting on Cellnet's policy of unauthorised debiting of the bank and credit card accounts of completely innocent people, who have no connection with Cellnet. I launched this site as a direct result of the shoddy treatment I received in February 1999, when I contacted Cellnet to complain about their theft of 150 from my personal Barclaycard account. Cellnet refused point-bank to apologise, offer compensation for my loss and inconvenience, or give me any assurance that it would not happen again. Instead, they told me to improve my own security, and said "you'll get nothing out of Cellnet", an attitude your firm may now regret.

I reject utterly your company's frequent assertion to its victims and the media that the theft is perpetrated by the person using the mobile phone. That person may well be defrauding Cellnet of airtime, but it is Cellnet who steal the real money from the bank or card accounts of their victims. Stealing is the act of theft, and theft is "taking property, etc, without right or permission". Cellnet had neither right nor permission to take my money from my account, so your action was theft. Theft is a crime, so I followed this up with the Police (see www.pardoes/cellnet/police.htm). They declined to investigate the theft, as I could not show them exactly where and when a crime had been committed. They eventually referred me to your Customer Service Line (see below).

Cellnet stated in the "Daily Telegraph" article of 18. December that "if credit cardholders inform it of incorrect deductions, it will close down whichever mobile phone has benefited" (I have recently confirmed with the author of the article that she quoted your spokesman verbatim). I had tried this approach for myself, by contacting you on 16. December, when, you will recall, you also declined to investigate the matter, saying you did not know who I was. Following the Police advice, I telephoned your Customer Service Line (0990 214 000), and a lady called S [name abbreviated here] confirmed that Cellnet could indeed identify and turn off a phone used in a fraudulent transaction, but that they couldn't tell me its number, in case I took matters into my own hands. She kept telling me that I would need to tell her the telephone number of the phone that had been used in the transaction, before she could take any action to have it turned off, or the user traced and prosecuted.

I obviously don't know that number, so I suggested that she trace it from the approximate time of the transaction and the credit card number used, since these must be logged somewhere. She said she was not allowed to take credit card details, as these could only be keyed in over a phone. She said again that even if the phone could be identified, Cellnet wouldn't tell me its number, or the identity or location of the user. If, on the other hand, I gave them the number, they could tell me where and when it was last topped up.

The location is important, since my colleague only uses his Company card occasionally, and (as you can see from the statement) in this billing period it had only previously been exposed in two places, a hotel in London and another in Hemel Hempstead. It should be possible for Cellnet to identify the cell in which their mobile was being operated at the time of its top-up, and this should in turn narrow down the venue. If one of these hotels is in that cell, it's a fair bet that the fraudulent transaction took place there (or at least by one of their employees), so the time and location could be reported to the Police, who would then be able to act.

I asked to speak to [S]'s supervisor, but the request was refused point blank. She said that if I was going to pursue the matter, I must take it up with the Police. I reminded her that it was the Thames Valley Police who had given me the Customer Service number, and asked which Police force she thought I should contact: Northwich, Slough or Cambridge (where your automated transactions apparently take place)? She couldn't answer that, but as a last resort she suggested that I contact the main Cellnet offices in Slough, and confirmed the number for me.

That, of course, completes the circle of my conversation with you. I now invite you, once again, to cooperate in investigating this theft, and to provide both me and the Police with the evidence necessary to detect the crime. If you, as Cellnet's Head of Security, persist in refusing to do so, it will be obvious that Cellnet's claim of cooperation is a falsehood, and that they are comfortable with protecting their customer, the fraudulent telephone user, from prosecution, while leaving the innocent victim vulnerable to repeated loss and inconvenience.

Your confirmation of your intention to carry out the above actions within a week of receipt (shown by Recorded Delivery) of this letter, and a progress report within a further two weeks, will oblige.

Yours sincerely,

S.J. Pardoe
Director, Able Systems Limited

Enc: Company Barclaycard Statement 5/12/1999

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