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.

Mobile Data Theft: why it’s a problem for marketing

Most people would have missed it, but at the end of October the Government’s Justice Committee published a report called Referral Fees and The Theft of Personal Data. It mostly looked at how referral fees for accident claims are fuelling a range of illegal and criminal activities. Many people are aware of spam accident claims texts, which are part of this ‘industry’. Although the spam messages were a smaller part of the report, there could be some important repercussions for the mobile marketing sector.

The report recommended the ending of referral fees, better investigation powers for the Information Commissioner’s Office and harsher penalties, including custodial sentences for data breaches. All of those are good things. Anything that can help clean up the mobile channel for legitimate marketers has to be of benefit. However, it is the age old problem with many regulations – it’s not lack of powers but lack of enforcement that is at issue. The ICO has never prosecuted anyone for sending an unsolicited SMS. There has been plenty of opportunity to do so, but it would appear that lack of evidence or investigation resources has meant that nothing has happened.

Whilst the need to clean up messaging is obvious for brand marketers, there is a less obvious worry about increasing government legislation. History shows that when governments try to legislate for technology they never do a good job. This year’s PECR update to include an opt-in for cookies is a good example. Everyone; brands, consumers and even the regulators are confused as to how it works or how it should be implemented. In these cases, industry self-regulation is always a more effective option.

Although this report isn’t largely concerned with spam, The Justice Committee called for legislation to look beyond just the accident claims sector. Although nothing specific has been suggested yet, you only have to look at recent legislation in India limited messages to 100 per day per person to see how draconian (and ineffective) it can get. Whilst that’s unlikely to happen in the UK, some people have already called for proof of ID when buying PAYG SIM cards. Both of these examples hurt individuals but do very little to combat the spam problem.

SMS spam is not simply a moral issue though. Whilst many brand marketers and ad agencies are thinking up whizzy apps and social media campaigns, spam messaging is damaging the whole channel. As mobile users we consume across all channels and the perception of spam will affect all brand campaigns. Poor legislation may actually make that worse.

In the end, the best solution is the introduction of better consumer spam reporting (as we have in email) and better filtering by the mobile operators.

43% of people in the UK have had a spam text (and 30% in the last month)

Whilst many a mobile marketer is developing whizzy apps, using QR codes and creating great mobile sites, the truth is that in the UK most consumers’ experience of mobile marketing is spam. The particular problem has been spam for accident claims, debt management and PPI claims. A new study by the DMA found that nearly 43% of the UK adult population have received such a message. It would also seem that the problem is getting worse, as 30% of people have received such a text in the last month.

The problem of the ‘text pests’ was reported on the front page of The Sunday Telegraph. Along with previous radio reports and a campaign by Money Saving Expert, the issue is becoming very high profile indeed. In the Telegraph report, John Spencer, Vice Chair of the Motor Accident Solicitor’s Association called for a ban on referral fees. Given that 3% of people have replied to such a text, the ‘claims farming’ industry is worth millions of pounds. Removing the incentive would certainly help. However, it won’t solve the problem of spam SMS. We have already seen the spammers switch to generating leads for Debt Management Orders and PPI claims. The MO is the same, and is clearly carried out by the same people. It is therefore essential that the whole of the mobile marketing sector works to removing the spam SMS, creating a clean, permission-based channel.

With my DMA hat on (yes, you get a hat when you join), we’ve been working to address the issue. A month ago we sat down with all the key regulators as well as some industry representatives to work out how we can stop it. Part of the problem is the bureaucracy of the regulators and the operators who can be both slow to respond or take concerted action. We identified seven different sets of regulations that are being breached by these messages. However that actually makes enforcement more complicated. Regulators who could enforce this are the ICO, MOJ, OfCom, OFT, The Solicitors Association and the ASA, but many of them will simply pass the buck to another regulators. Similarly, although some operators are very concerned about the problem, the ones we invited didn’t come to the meeting.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore that the DMA study found that 46% of consumers didn’t know who to complain to. Of those who thought they would know where to go, OfCom was the favoured one (20%). Unfortunately OfCom have no information or reporting procedures for this on their website. In our meeting it was clear that they had no interest in tackling the issue. Many would complain to their operator (17%), but our experience is that customer services rarely know who in their organisation they should pass the information to. In fact the two organisations who are most relevant to the accident claims texts are the ICO and MOJ. They scored the lowest of the organisations that consumers would go to.

So what’s the solution? It seems remarkably simple. At the sending end, the operators need to respond more quickly to block spam texts. At the receiving end, all of the regulators need to take a more concerted approach to enforcement. They should also be providing a clear, simple set of consumer guidelines. The ICO have some information here. There is also some useful information on Money Saving Expert.

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.

How to Deal with Accident Claim Spam SMS

New Research from DMA: 43% of people in the UK have received such a message

For the last two years, we have frequently seen spam accident claims text messages. Having taken many a straw poll at events and conferences it seems that a significant percentage of people in the UK have experienced these messages.

This article explains who is sending them and what you can do about it:

From: 447973017918

Free Msg; Our records indicate you may be entitled to £3750 for the accident you had. To claim free reply CLAIM to this message. To opt out text STOP.

The number that it comes from frequently changes, as does the reply keyword (eg CLAIM or YES) and the amount.

Who is sending these messages?

The people sending out these messages are known as ‘claims farmers’. These are companies who find leads and then sell those to accident claims management companies. By the time they reach the claims management service, they are verified leads of people who may well have a legitimate accident claim.

There are 100s of claims farmers in the UK and it would seem that many of them are involved with this type of SMS activity. RBS Insurance did a study last year and found that 11% of accident claims started with this type of SMS.

Surely it’s Illegal?

It all depends on how you define ‘illegal’. It’s not a criminal activity – for example there is no evidence that they are trying to defraud anyone by asking for money.  However it does breach a number of regulations. It breaches the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations in two ways:

1. The company sending the message is not identified – some people think the company is called ‘FREEMSG:’, however that is simply telling the recipient that the message was free to receive (which it is).

2. The recipient did not opt-in to receive the message. There are two types of opting-in – a hard opt-in is where you specifically agreed to receive the information, and a soft-opt in is where you may have been in contact with a company to buy something or a discussion about buying something, or you may have allowed your details to be given to a third party for marketing purposes.

Typically companies sending spam will claim that you gave your details on a website at some point. However, the onus is on them to show exactly where they got your details and prove that you opted-in. Simply saying ‘you gave your details on a website’ is not acceptable. It is clear from the number of people I have contacted that they would not have given out their mobile phone details at any time.

Accident claims and debt management companies are regulated by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). Under their regulations, claims marketing messages cannot be misleading or alarming. These text messages breach both of those requirements.

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.

Will receiving or  replying by SMS cost me money?
The short answer is no (apart from any cost to send a standard SMS). Any SMS that makes a charge to your phone must come from a shortcode number (4,5 or 6 digit number), and there are strict set of guidelines that make it very difficult to do illegally. If you feel that it may have cost you money then contact the regulator, PhonepayPlus. They have emergency powers to shut down any service that breaches their regulations.

What should I do with the SMS? Reply, delete it or report it?
Some people believe that SMS is like email, and that replying to it will verify the mobile number. That is not the case with SMS. All text messages include a delivery receipt, so the sender knows that you have a live mobile number without you having to reply.

On the whole it is better not to reply to the messages. There is no evidence that replying to the message will initiate further texts or calls (I have replied to a few of them and received just one phone-call back), however if you are worried about further spam, then don’t send a reply.

You could reply telling them to ‘Fcuk Off’. It will make you feel better, but it will do nothing. In all likelyhood their systems will only recognise the reply words in the message (CLAIM or STOP), so your reply will simply end up unnoticed on the server. If you really want them to read the message then start your reply with the keyword (eg CLAIM) then tell them to ‘Fcuk Off’. Or better still, tell them that you are reporting their spam to the MOJ (see below).

DON’T DELETE THE MESSAGE. Even though it’s annoying to have it on the phone, it cannot damage your mobile in any way. You WILL need the message on your phone if you are going to do make a complaint.

How to Report a Spam Message
Definately report it to the MOJ (see emails and phone numbers above). They may or may not be able to do something but it is essential they know it is happening. The MOJ are very concerned about this kind of activity.

You should also report it to your operator. All UK operators have some kind of spam reporting service (though not always made very public). I found the following:

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.

Ultimately your operator can only help filter the messages, not stop them entirely. Filtering SMS can be problematic as unlike an email they lack any real data – it can only see the message and the sending number. Thus, variations in the message or the number it comes from may by-pass the spam filter. However, keep report it as it all helps them deal with the problem.

How did they get my number?
To be clear, your mobile operator cannot sell or give your number to a third party, so it will not have come directly from there. There are a number of ways they can get your number:

1. Rogue individuals at mobile operators – although the operator will not have sold your number it is possible that someone working or contracting for them did do that. There was an incident with a T-Mobile employee doing just that in 2009.

2. Unscrupulous data providers – this is the most likely route. These providers collect numbers through a range of sources such as websites or online surveys and sell them on, claiming they are legitimate.

3. Number generation – there are set operator codes, so it is possible to take those codes and randomly generate the last six digits. This, however is quite an expensive way to send messages, as many of the SMSs will fail (but the spammer will still pay to send them).

The best way to deal with the spammers
The ideal way to deal with the spammers is to find out exactly who the company is and report the information to the MOJ. Unfortunately that means replying to the message. I haven’t had any noticable spam as a result, so if you are prepared to take the risk then it’s worth it. It is really important to get as much information about the company as possible. At the every least their website address. Ideally get them to confirm by email or SMS. They have been known to deny phone conversations. If it is a phone conversation then make notes of the date and time of the call, the number they called from (if you have it) and the name of the person you spoke to. Once you have the information, send it to the MOJ.

Update
I replied to one of the accident claim texts. About four days later I got a call from a withheld number. The caller said ‘we believe you have been recently injured in an accident’. I asked who was calling, and was vaguely told that they were a ‘network of claims managers’. They said my number had been passed on by another company. I asked who that company was and they told me they didn’t know. I asked them to call back with the company name and they said they would. Suffice to say I’ve never heard back from them.

If you have experienced spam SMS from accident or debt management companies, then please add (a shortish) comment here.

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.