SMS Spam: what does India tell us about stopping it?

It was little over a month ago when the Indian regulator, TRAI took steps to stem the flood of spam in the country. A number of measures were introduced, including larger fines, registration of messaging companies, and limiting the daily text messages on pre-pay SIMs to 100 per day. It was the latter move that grabbed the worldwide headlines because it was something that significantly affected many consumers. And surprise surprise, it seems to have made little difference. Although a dip was reported shortly after the measure was introduced, feedback from consumers shows that in just a few weeks, the spam levels have gone back up. All the spammers did was to switch their operating method to using web-based messaging systems. There are even reports of a switch to voice-calling.

Although the two markets are different in some respects, this is very telling for the work being done in the UK to reduce SMS spam. No one has yet suggested restricting text messages, however some people have called for ID to be used when buying PAYG SIMs. However, the government is planning to remove paid leads in the personal injuries market. This may or may not reduce the spam in this area, but the evidence is that they will simply move on to something else: PPI claims or debt management. As long as there is money to be made, spammers will try.

Does this mean there’s no solution to spam? There is one, but it will come from a combination of better filtering and management by the operators, better enforcement of the existing regulations and consumer education to ignore and report unsolicited messages.

DMA finds 8 million spam texts sent every day in the UK

A couple of weeks ago, The Sun claimed that there were 5 million spam text messages sent everyday in the UK. They didn’t quote a source, but the figure seemed rather high. Given that a number of journalists had been asking the DMA about the volume of spam SMS, we decided to find out. Using Touluna QuickSurvey we asked 1000 UK adults if they had received spam. The results were more surprising than we expected:
  • 58% of people had received SMS spam in the last month
  • 11% of people had received more than 10 spam messages in the last month
If those figures are mapped against the UK adult mobile population of 48.5m it means that 23 million people received spam last month. Accounting for the number of messages that each person received, it means that there were 263 million spam messages in the last month, or 8 million per day. Surprisingly, it seems as though The Sun has been under exaggerating the figure. The DMA’s study has been widely reported by the BBC today.
The definition of spam is a difficult one. Legally, spam is where the recipient has not opted-in, however many mobile owners regard any message they don’t want as spam, even if they opted-in previously. For example a previous purchase is considered as a soft opt-in (provided it was stated in the T&Cs). It is quite acceptable under the regulations to send such messages, but not acceptable from a consumer perspective.

To try to understand a bit more about the types of company, we split the 58% of spam recipients as follows:

  • 22% have received SMS spam from company the recipient had previously bought products from or made an enquiry with – technically a soft-opt in.

  • 23.5% have received SMS spam from a company they knew, but had no previous contact with

  • 54% have received SMS spam from companies they don’t know and have had no previous contact with

  • 30% have received SMS spam from a company not identified in the message – these are typically accident claims, debt management or mis-sold PPI messages

8 million spam messages per day is a lot. It could be argued that more than one fifth of these meet the regulatory requirements but consumers still see them as spam. The 8 million spam texts are just 3% of the 300 million messages sent each day in the UK. Compare that to email, where it is estimated that 78% of the billions of daily messages are spam. So why should 3% be a problem in mobile spam?

There are three important reasons why:

  • Mobile is very personal – this is the device that we have with us all the time. We don’t share it, and it’s the place that most of us communicate with our friends and family. Unsolicited messages in this channel are very intrusive. A DMA/IAB study last year found that there was a 98% recall of brand SMS. Clearly, people remember a text message – solicited or unsolicited.

  • People are not used to mobile spam – we have all learnt to live with a certain amount of email spam. That is helped in part by increasingly sophisticated spam filters and report spam buttons in email. Those management tools don’t exist for individual mobile users (yet).

  • Mobile spam is bad news for legitimate permission-based marketing – even in world of apps and mobile web, SMS is an important driver for brand marketing, service and CRM. For consumers it can offer a convenient and immediate communication tool. If there is a perception that the channel is full of spam consumers will be reluctant to give brands their mobile number. In the email channel, the service providers have a major issue getting around spam filters, black-listing of servers and getting consumers to open their message. This is where SMS could end up if spam levels continue to rise.

In the end, text spam will be dealt with by a combination of better enforcement from the regulators, better filtering by the mobile operators and consumers not responding to unsolicited messages. The DMA is doing considerable work in this area – watch this space for updates.

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.