America Online has cut direct access for its users in Russia because people were signing on to the service using stolen credit cards.
Rather than cut off service altogether, AOL has blocked local telephone access, which is expensive in Russia and grew costly when AOL was stuck with the bill.
"It was brought to our attention that people were signing on using fraudulent cards. When we went to collect on the accounts we found out they were stolen," spokeswoman Susan Porter said by phone from the company's Dulles, Va., offices.
Users of the fraudulent credit card numbers bought hours of time online. Because local telephone access is almost three times more expensive in Russia than in the United States, the financial costs were high, Ms. Porter said.
Prior to the cutoff, AOL customers in Russia could dial in to local phone numbers throughout the country to access the service, while only paying for a local call. This was especially useful to the many American businesses who use AOL as a means to access e-mail and the Internet from within the country.
AOL subscribers can still access their accounts, but must now get to them via an account on one of the Russian Internet services such as Glasnet, Russian Online or Matrix.
Local phone numbers in 40 Russian cities that subscribers used to access the service were blocked on Dec. 14.
AOL is investigating the problem, Porter said, but the level of fraud is daunting. She could not say how many customers the service had in Russia.
"We're making every effort to reinstate service there, but we don't know when that is going to be," she said.
Russia's new criminal code mandates a prison sentence of between two and six years for "manufacturing false credit or payment cards for the purpose of fraud," but does not include a provision for electronic or telephone fraud. Fines for the disruption and misuse of computer networks are included, but again don't include electronic or telephone fraud.
With more than 6 million subscribers, AOL is the world's largest Internet service provider. No official explanation for the shutdown was given to subscribers or posted on the service.
In fact, other parts of AOL haven't quite caught on yet. When users go to the service's International area, a voice says "Dobry dyen" - the Russian equivalent of the "Welcome" that greets users each time they log on to the service.
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