What is The Solution to Solution to Spam SMS?

Spam texts are clearly a problem. Although they represent a much smaller percentage than email spam (around 3% vs 75%), mobile is a much more personal channel. Maybe one solution could come from a preference service? In the UK there is one for voice called the Telephone Preference Service (TPS). It is widely known by consumers and generally works well. It started as a voluntary scheme, but became part of the regulations. Any brand intending to conduct telemarketing in the UK must, by law, screen the numbers against the list.

So why not set up something similar for SMS? The problem is that SMS is different to voice. Where as a telemarketer can phone you without prior permission, text messages are classed as ‘electronic mail’ and require the user to opt-in before a message can be sent. So for a marketer to send you a text, you must have given your permission directly or indirectly through a soft-opt in (through a sale or negotiation of a sale). Not only that, the marketer must also offer a method of opting-out of further messages. It’s therefore pointless for marketers to scan against a preference list, as users will already have opted in.

A preference service won’t stop the spammers either. In the UK a majority of unsolicited messages are for accident claims, debt management or mis-sold loads or personal insurance. The people sending the texts know they are breaking the law, so they use a variety of methods to avoid discovering. One thing is certain though. They are not going to scan their lists against a preference service.

In the end the only way to prevent SMS spam is a combination of better enforcement against those who are breaking the law – so far the regulators haven’t prosecuted anyone – there is much more they can do. Stopping spam also needs to be supported by better filtering at the operator level. This will stop many more messages from reaching handsets in the first place. One way to support this is through a spam reporting button (or address book entry) on every mobile handset. Even though it may be well intended, a mobile preference service is not going to solve the problem. In the end it may simply mislead consumers into believing that registering with it can somehow prevent spam messaging. It won’t.

Spam SMS and the Operators: what can they do about it?

All the evidence points to a rise in spam SMS. 42% of people in the UK have had an accident claim spam. Add in the other unsolicited marketing messages and it’s fair to assume that more than half of the population have experience SMS spam. And most people blame their operator for it. So why does it appear that they are doing very little to tackle the problem? Why can’t they just filter out these messages?

Some conspiracy theorists have suggested that the operators have an interest in keeping spam going because:

  1.  They earn money from the messages
  2.  They sell the data in the first place

Unfortunately for these theorists neither of these things are true. The messages are typically sent using PAYG SIMS with an unlimited SMS plan. It is therefore better that messages are not sent – they earn money from the top up, and not the message sending itself. When it comes to their data, it is not in their interests to sell it. This would be a pretty fundamental breach of the Data Protection Act – both the fines and damage to their reputation would be far in excess of any revenue from selling numbers. In fact, when some T-Mobile employees sold customer data out the back door, the company informed the police and two people were prosecuted. The biggest reason though is that dealing with spam costs the operators a lot of money. They need a considerable customer service resource to do this.

So, given that it is far better for the operators to be spam free, why can’t they stop it?

First of all, the spammers don’t make it easy to stop. They use multiple PAYG SIMS in a SIM bank. This allows up to 300 cards to send messages via one server. The spammers even spoof IMEI numbers and handset types to make it look like individual phones are sending the messages. However underlying all of this is the fact that operators cannot view the message content by law. Whilst some nameless organisations were happily hacking into mobile phone voice mails, the operators can neither listen in to calls nor look at a text message.

In spam terms this means they have one hand tied behind their back. Still, they have methods of detecting spam – looking at things like message length, originating and IMEI number ranges all helps identify the spammers, but as these constantly change, it is also not easy. In one case in the US the spammers put their SIM bank in a van and drove around to different areas, ensuring that the base station sending the messages constantly changed.

So is there an operator solution?

There are two ways the spammers can be stopped. The first one is by using software, much the same as email spam software. Whilst a human cannot look at message content, a computer can. A good algorithm can identify spam not just through key works, but a whole series of patterns from the sender ID, to the base station, frequency or IMEI number. The second part of the solution is the one that works the best – get customers to report spam. They are the best at identifying it, and if the process is made easy, they will willingly do it.

If it’s so simple, why don’t the operators filter spam already?

Some do, but not all of them. In the UK the amount of spam you get will very much depend on your operator (I won’t name names). However, as one of them put it to me; ‘we didn’t think spam would be a problem’. Naïve? Certainly. But welcome to the world of mobile operators. They are focussed on running big engineering operations for calls, SMS and data and on provider customer service. They can also work at a glacial pace. It’s hard to implement things quickly within these vast organisations. Whilst the spam software can be implemented in a few weeks, it will take an operator years to put it in place.

The other side of this is consumer reporting: if customers tell them when they get an unsolicited SMS it is possible to close the spamming numbers quickly. The timescale to stop the SIM banks is within an hour as around 85% of people respond within that time. Unfortunately at the moment there are two problems with this: firstly consumers don’t know how to report spam. There is a shortcode number for all the operators, but it’s hard to find it. Secondly, the current systems in the operators means that it takes a minimum of three days to close down a number (and typically one week).

In Korea there was a similar problem with spam. They solved it by getting the handset manufacturers to add a ‘this is spam’ link to all of the phone messaging menus. Simple and effective.

Why aren’t they working together?

The biggest issue preventing an operator solution in the UK is that the operators don’t want to publicly admit there is a problem. The primary reason is competition. If one operator puts spam high on their priorities, they are worried that others will simply say they don’t have a problem with it. In many ways, that doesn’t make sense. Most customers are aware of receiving spam, but it would seem that this competitive fear is stopping them from tackling the problem in the best possible way – with the help of their customers. In the end though, they are on a hiding to nothing. At some point, the government will want to legislate. They may happen sooner rather than later if someone in the government gets one of the infamous messages. And when governments legislate around technology, the outcomes are far worse and more draconian that industry legislation. In Canada there is now a fine of $1 million PER MESSAGE for unsolicited SMS. Whilst there are initiatives from the GSMA to monitor and stop spam, it is optional for operators (and they need to pay for the service).

Hopefully that problem will end soon. Representatives from all the UK operators have both discussed the spam problem around accident claims messages, and agreed to give their customers the same advice. I say hopefully because in spite of giving that information to the operators, as yet none of them have updated their site, or publicly admitted to unsolicited messages being a problem. Things move slowly in the world of mobile networks. Very slowly.

How To Deal with Unsolicited Accident Claims, Debt Management or PPI Text Messages

New DMA research shows that 43% of people have received one of these messages

In the UK there is currently an epidemic of unsolicited text messages for accidents, debt or mis-sold insurance. These are sent by companies who are seeking leads to sell on to claims management companies or solicitors. They are misleading and breach a number of regulations. Unfortunately there are enough people who have had an accident, in debt or have paid for PPI who understandably believe the messages are genuine. They are not. Often the messages start with words along the lines of ‘FREE MSG: Our records indicate that you are [or ‘you may be’] entitled to …’. If they really had such records then it would be a breach of the Data Protection Act, but they don’t have any records. They are just trying to mislead the recipient. At best these texts are annoying, at worst they could be distressing.
Here’s what you can do about them:

Ignore it
The good news is that receiving such a message in the UK won’t actually cost you any money. Only messages sent from four, five or six digit numbers (called shortcodes) can make a charge to your phone. If the message comes from something that looks like a normal mobile phone or has a name instead of a number then it will not make a charge to your phone. If you think that it has cost you money then report it to the premium rate regulator, Phone Pay Plus immediately. They have emergency powers to close down numbers that are illegally making charges. You can make a complaint by email, phone or even SMS by following this link: http://www.phonepayplus.org.uk/For-The-Public/Make-a-complaint.aspx

Don’t delete it immediately, do make a note of the details
An ordinary SMS cannot damage your phone – it can’t add a virus, delete anything or make a charge to your phone bill. If the message icon looks different to other text messages, then it is wise to delete it without opening it, however, if it looks like any other SMS, then it will not cause any problems.

It’s important to make a note of the details including:

  • The time and date you received it
  • What the message said
  • The name or number that it came from

Report it to your operator
In the first instance, tell your operator about it. All of the mobile operators have a spam SMS reporting service:

  • Orange, O2, T-Mobile and Three: Forward the SMS to 7726
  • Vodafone: Forward the SMS to VSPAM (87726)

Alternatively complain through their customer service department.

Report it to the Ministry of Justice
The MOJ regulate companies in the accident claims, debt management and mis-sold claims sector. They are very interested in hearing about companies who send unsolicited messages.

Their website is here: https://www.claimsregulation.gov.uk/index.aspx

You can complain by email: info@claimsregulation.gov.uk or by phone on 0845 450 6858 or 01283 233 309 (only use the 0845 number from your landline as phoning from your mobile will be more expensive).

Report it to the Information Commissioner’s Office
As of 26th May 2011, the ICO has new powers to both investigate spam and to raise fines of up to £500,000. They are also keen to hear from anyone who has had an unsolicited SMS from a company.

You can complete the form or call them from this page on their site – http://www.ico.gov.uk/complaints/privacy_and_electronic_communications.aspx

Replying to The Messages
These messages usually include two ‘keywords’, one keyword (such as CLAIM) to make a ‘claim’ and STOP to opt out of further messages.

We would not advise you to reply to the text, however there is no evidence that replying to these messages will either cost you money (other than the cost of sending the text itself) or result in any significant increase in spam. If you reply with CLAIM then you will get a call within a day or so from someone saying they represent a ‘a network of claims management companies’ and asking for details of the accident (or debt or PPI). They sometimes call from a withheld number (which is illegal) and when questioned, they will refuse to give the company name. If you are lucky enough to find out the name of the company, then make a note of it, along with the date and time of the call and any subsequent communications, then report it to the MOJ and ICO (details above).

Replying STOP is probably pointless. They are suggesting that you will be opted out of further communications but there is no evidence that they will actually do this.

If you reply with anything else (including threats or profanity) then it will simply be ignored. These messages are received by a computer which will only recognise the specific keyword (eg CLAIM), which is then passed on to the call centre. Anything else will simply disappear into cyberspace and will never be read by a human. The best way to get revenge is to report it to the organisations listed above.

The regulators are well aware of the problem with spam SMS and are currently working closely with operators and industry experts to both stop these messages. Providing as much information as you can to the regulators will help catch the spammers.

Accident Claims and Loan Protection Spam SMS

Following on from the previous blogs about unsolicited texts for accident claims, it seems that some of the spammers have switched to mis-sold load protection insurance messages. Much as the accident claims texts, they start in exactly the same way …

Free Msg: Our records indicate you may be entitled to £3750 …’

Clearly, it’s coming from the same source as the accident claims texts. Both types of marketing message are regulated by the Ministry of Justice, who are well aware of the problem. A spokesman for the MOJ was on Radio 4’s You and Yours yesterday explaining the problem. You can listen to it on iPlayer here (the interview is 21 minutes in). He said that thousands of people had received this message. In fact, it’s probably many more than that. A few quick surveys show that up to half of everyone has got such a message. That’s millions of messages.

The good news is that  something is being done. As mentioned in the Radio 4 interview, they are working closely with the DMA to resolve the problem. We (the DMA that is) have created a working group which includes the regulators (MOJ, ICO), experts from the mobile marketing and telecoms industry, and mobile operators. The problem for the MOJ is that whilst dealing with the unsolicited messages are high on their priority list, they don’t have the technical resources to identify the culprits. By bringing together various industry experts, we can make it easier to identify the spammers, also look at how they got hold of the data and even take some preventative measures to stop the messages reaching the handsets.

There will be updates on the progress in this blog. Click here if you want to read more about the claims texts and what to do about them.

Personal Injury Claims Spam SMS

It’s probably an inevitable result of the recession, but it seems that many people have been receiving texts along the lines of:

FREE MSG: Our records indicate u maybe entitled to £5000 in compensation
for your recent Accident, To claim just reply with CLAIM to this msg, 2
stop txt STOP

The number of people who have told me that they received these messages is massive – I would go as far as saying that around half the people I know in the UK have had these spam SMSs. One journalist who was reporting on the issue received three of these messages in one week.

Given the largely adverse reaction, why would the companies concerned send them? The answer is, that just like spam SMS, some people respond to them. Firstly, the chances of someone having had an accident are quite high and secondly when everyone’s short of money people are looking for a way to get more of it. In fact an RBS study revealed that 11% of claims resulted from a text or email received by the claimant. Inevitably where there’s the opportunity of making money, then it is a magnet for scammers. Yet it seems to be more than just scammers, it would appear that legitimate firms are using SMS but not always complying with the regulations (and certainly not best practice). However, tracing firms who send unsolicited text messages is not easy. I spent a few months tracking down one company last year, and even using my insider knowledge on how SMS works, it took a lot of effort to find the culprit. I suspect that as a result of the difficulties, the number of complaints are relatively low, as most people can’t identify the people who are spamming them.

It would seem that the Ministry of Justice, who regulate accident claims companies, are looking to clamp down further on unsolicited marketing, including voice calling, email and SMS especially. In August 2009 the MoJ had already stopped 100 firms from trading due to abuses, and it looks like the body will clamp down further. This is good news, as from a mobile marketing point of view, this kind of SMS spam is very bad for business. If most people’s experience of ‘mobile marketing’ are these messages, then their trust in legitimate and permission based marketing will be much less.