Millions of people … in fact ten’s of millions of people in the UK have received unsolicited messages along the lines of ‘FREEMSG: Our records indicate that you may be entitled to £3750 for your accident … ‘. In my DMA capacity we have been working closely with the regulators, operators and SMS aggregators to both stop the messages and identify the culprits. Here are the answers to a few questions that I’m commonly asked about these:
Who’se Doing It?
The exact identity has been very hard to establish (more on why that is, later on) but they are commonly called ‘Claims Farmers’. They solicit leads which are then sold on to lawyers and other accident claims management firms who work on a no-win no-fee basis.
Why are They Doing It?
In short, for the money. They are paid by the solicitors for each lead they send. It would seem that enough people reply to these texts, and from there, they find enough people who have a legitimate claim to make money.
Are they trying to defraud people?
No they are not. What they are doing in terms of the SMS is not legal, but once passed through to solicitors as a claim everything is above board. They are not trying to elicit money from people they are texting.
But surely it’s against the law?
It is. In fact we have identified seven different pieces of legislation which are being breached. However that’s part of the problem. They are enforced by different regulators.
Why can’t anyone catch them?
The problem is that they refuse to identify their company. By the time it reaches the solicitor or claims company the lead is perfectly legitimate.
Can’t you trace them through the numbers they use?
Unfortunately it’s not that simple. The only numbers they use in the SMS are pay as you go SIM cards. They aren’t registered to anyone.
Surely the mobile operators can stop them?
They’re trying, but it’s proving difficult. As the spammers are using pay as you go SIM cards (hooked up to a PC via a SIM bank), they send a batch of messages, then switch to another SIM card. The operators are blocking the numbers as soon as they spot the messages, however it’s quite difficult to find them. There are 9 billion text messages sent every months in the UK so monitoring them all is not an easy task.
What about the call centres that handle the claims?
The problem is that the callers refuse to identify themselves. As with the mobile SIMS the numbers used frequently changed, and subscriber information is often incorrect. Where numbers have been identified, the call centre claims that they were not the ones who sent the SMS. The typical response is ‘we represent a network of over 3000 companies’.
So if it’s not the operators or the call centres, how about the solicitors, surely they can identify the culprits?
It is a requirement under the Ministry of Justice rules that solicitors know where a lead has come from. That lead must also be obtained in a legal way. Solicitors have provided the name of the companies who supplied the leads in the past. However, once the companies are contacted they no longer have the information as they do not keep records on file on the grounds of ‘data protection’.
But surely the regulators know who is sending these and why can’t they prosecute them?
They have a good idea who they are. However, to make a prosecution requires evidence. As the spammers are hiding their identity, finding the evidence is difficult.
Where are they getting the numbers from? Surely it’s possible to find the people who give them the mobile numbers?
Identifying the source of the numbers is difficult. They are not getting them from any legitimate sources. There’s no evidence that they are coming from the operators – they are very protective of that data and risk prosecution if they fail to do so. It is possible that the numbers come from less than reputable websites. The most likely answer is that they are using number generation. There are lists of all the UK operator codes, so all they need to do is to generate the last six digits. Given that they are using PAYG SIMS with unlimited texts it’s not an expensive way to do it.
What about the emergency services? There were reports that some of them had provided numbers of accident victims?
There is a newspaper report about this, but according to the Ministry of Justice who investigated the matter it is only a handful of numbers. Also, this information would be sold directly to the claims companies and not the claims farmers who are trying to create the leads through these messages.
So what’s the solution?
First and foremost, even if you have had an accident (or are in debt or have a PPI claim), don’t respond to the message, even to request STOP. If you need to make a claim then, only use an accredited company. For accident claims, there is a list on the MOJ website https://www.claimsregulation.gov.uk/search.aspx If consumers stop replying to the messages then they will stop doing it. There’s no point unless they get their leads.
As for catching the spammers, there is a lot of work going on between the regulators, mobile operators and SMS aggregators. They are improving the lines of communication so that information can be passed back much more quickly. The operators are now trying to cooperate more closely to address the problem of the fast-changing SIM cards.
In the meantime, if you have received a message along the lines described here, then forward the message and number it came from to the MOJ on firstname.lastname@example.org or the ICO on http://www.ico.gov.uk/complaints.aspx