Sunday 20 October 2019

Fraudsters forced telecoms chief to come up with conference call answers

247Meeting boss Gavan Doherty developed an algorithm to beat hackers, writes Gabrielle Monaghan

Gavan Doherty says many customers are now switching over to the 247Meeting app which has clients like Boots, IBM and Irish LIfe. Photo: Brian Bastick
Gavan Doherty says many customers are now switching over to the 247Meeting app which has clients like Boots, IBM and Irish LIfe. Photo: Brian Bastick

Gabrielle Monaghan

In December 2010, Ireland was in the doldrums. Not only had the country just been forced into an EU/IMF bailout programme, it was blanketed by snow and ice - public transport, traffic and trade had ground to a halt during one of the coldest Irish months on record.

But when a worried Gavan Doherty sat in his snow-bound Sandyford office, it was neither the weather nor the economic woes that were on his mind.

Instead, it was fraud that posed an existential threat to 247Meeting, a conference call firm he had set up five years earlier.

The entrepreneur had just received a phone-call from BT, one of his biggest clients, to tell him that his conference call network had been hijacked all weekend long by hackers, who had used it to make thousands of expensive calls to locations such as Cuba and Yemen. The worst was still to come: Gavan was expected to foot the bill.

"When BT told me I owed them €186,000, I was aghast," he recalls. "I thought, 'okay, we're done'. We certainly couldn't pay the bill - it amounted to at least a year's revenue at the time."

Somehow, the former telecom engineer managed to turn the crisis into an opportunity.

"My account manager and head of finance eventually met with BT and said 'we'll take some of the hit and we will also move a lot of our spend over to BT from other clients'," the now-44 year old says. "We ended up doing a three-year work-out deal with them."

The episode also prompted Gavan to apply to Enterprise Ireland's research and development fund to finance the creation of a new algorithm that could prevent fraudsters from hacking into group conference calls.

The algorithm was patented in Europe and the US in 2016 and a smartphone app based on it was finally rolled out for free six months ago.

The app enables users to hold an instant conference call on the go, without the need for a dial-in number, a pin code - or any awkward small-talk about the weather while waiting for other users to join the call. That's because instead of dialling into a conference call, the app 'dials out' to all guests at once.

The app also offers the host more control over a call, by showing them a picture on their phone of everyone who is taking part. This feature especially reassures high-profile managers concerned about someone eavesdropping on their confidential calls.

"When you dial in to a conference on a fixed line, you have no idea who's on the call, so you have to ask 'Is John on? Is Mary on?'," Gavan says. "If the host is holding a very confidential call, because, for instance, they are looking to close down a division of a company, it's very important to know who's on the call."

The algorithm uses real-time data to identify red flags in calling patterns, such as the number of people on a call, the time of day, or the countries called. If the pattern points to suspicious activity, the user's account is automatically blocked. "The algorithm looks at patterns such as whether they regularly call the US during business hours," Gavan says. "But if the algorithm detects someone who regularly makes calls in the middle of night to Pakistan, we can flag that they are not a business customer."

Every year, the global telecommunications industry loses €40bn to fraudsters, he says, citing the Communications Fraud Control Association. As a result, telecom providers use fastidious verifications to ensure they don't lose money to fraud, such as by carrying out credit checks and limiting the number of attendees on a conference call.

Gavan likens these verifications to the ones used by credit card companies. "Sometimes a credit card company will ring up and say 'Were you in Saudi Arabia and did you buy a 42-inch telly there?'," he says. "If you say you didn't, the company will sort it out. A very similar scenario happens in telecoms all the time.

"Like credit card companies, detecting telecom fraud is very manual. They have one black box that handles all the phone calls and at the end of the day, that box hands over to another black box that handles all the billing. That's why these fraudsters start hijacking accounts at five minutes past midnight - that's when one black box hands over to another, giving these guys 24 hours to make all those calls without being noticed.

"The telecom industry doesn't want that to make that fraud that the end-user's problem. Think back to that 42-inch telly in Saudi - if the credit card company said it was your problem and that you'd have to pay for it, you'd cut up your credit card. In the same way, telecom companies don't want to lose customers.

The Dubliner has been in the telecom industry for almost two decades. But his path towards the sector was far from straightforward. After graduating from UCD in 1995 with a degree in Latin and Italian, he failed to find a job, so went back to college the following year to pursue a diploma in business studies. With that qualification under his belt, he secured a sales and marketing role with a tech company. There he discovered he enjoyed the technology side of the job much more than sales and went back to college a third time, to do a master's degree in computer science.

"I graduated in September 2001, and the Twin Towers had been crashed into and it felt like the whole world was imploding," Gavan remembers. "I didn't know if I'd get a job in computers, so I took a job as a tiler for a few months."

The newly-qualified computer engineer was eventually hired by Spectel, a video and audio conferencing firm that was acquired by US communications group Avaya.

During his seven-year stint at the company, where he designed conference-call systems, Gavan realised he could cut the costs of conference calls by automating simple tasks. Armed with this knowledge, he struck out in 2005 and set up 247Meeting. While most entrepreneurs mourned the onset of the recession, the economic slump proved a blessing in disguise for the fledgling firm.

"We could operate on much thinner margins than competitors," Gavan says.

Indeed, 247Meeting achieved most of its growth during the recession, and now has an annual turnover of about €1m and 15,000 customers across 57 countries, including Australia, China, Mexico, and the US.

It employs 16 people at its offices in Dublin, Belfast, London and New York, and counts Irish Life, Boots, IBM, Hertz Europe, and KMPG amongst its clients. "We grew to almost to the size we are at now during the recession without much by way of differentiation - it was based entirely on price," Gavan says. "We now are looking to the mobile app to provide innovation. We still have the existing dial-in fixed-line business, but, bit by bit, customers are moving over to the app."

With an ever-increasing number of employees and contractors working remotely, the conference call is becoming more popular than ever as it negates the need for time-consuming travel for face-to-face meetings. But in some sectors, 247Meeting has a hurdle to overcome in persuading customers to switch.

"Some people are happy to drive to places for meetings," Gavan says. "It's a cultural thing and they don't particularly want to change that. Or give up their mileage!"

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