LO­CAL HE­ROES Fraud­sters forced tele­coms chief to come up with con­fer­ence call an­swers

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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

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 phonecall 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 work­out 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 cus- tomers 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!” 247meet­ing.com

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

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