Mobile World Sparks Cell Phone Spam Onslaught

How to halt cell phone spam via text and email: Internet Scambusters #448

A tide of cell phone spam threatens to swamp our mobile world.

By email and text messages the spammers find their way onto our wireless devices — and sometimes we have to pay for the experience!

But if you know the law and the way the spammers work, you can stop most of their tricks, as we explain in this week’s report.

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On to today’s main topic…

Mobile World Sparks Cell Phone Spam Onslaught

With more than half the world’s population now using mobile communication devices, cell phone spam is on the rise — despite government clampdown efforts.

Mobile phone spam, also known as m-spam, can arrive in two forms — either as an email or as a text or SMS message (which some clever person labeled spaSMS).

In most cases it’s illegal, but what’s really infuriating is that unless you have an unlimited text plan with your cell phone service provider, you end up actually paying for this garbage.

Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to significantly reduce or stop cell phone spam, as we’ll explain later.

But first let’s take a brief look at the scale of the problem and what the law says a person can or can’t do when it comes to sending messages, whether text or email, to wireless devices.

A hint of how many cell phone spam text messages are out there can be gleaned from recent action by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), who, in February 2011, asked a court to shut down a company that was allegedly sending out an average of 85 cell phone spam text messages a minute — 5.5 million in 40 days.

Worse, the financial services being offered purportedly didn’t exist and the person who sent them out allegedly then sold the details of anyone who replied as leads to other financial services businesses.

That’s the mass-market end of the problem. At the individual level, consumer campaigner David Morris reported in the Charlotte Sun Herald newspaper recently on how one of his readers had been alarmed to be alerted to an incoming message on her cell phone in the early hours of the morning.

But, presumably with her heart pounding, when she checked, it turned out to be just a piece of cell phone spam.

Morris reports that research from the Pew Center shows that 72 percent of users now receive cell phone text.

It’s fair to assume that most of them receive cell phone spam at some time or another since another survey, by anti-virus group AVG and consultants The Ponemon Institute, says that two thirds of all cell phone users now say they are worried about receiving marketing ads.

What The Law Says About Cell Phone Spam

Like all electronic junk mail, cell phone spam was targeted by the CAN-SPAM Act of 2005, which required marketers to seek “express prior authorization” before sending out email advertisements.

But in those days, most cell phone spam arrived by email rather than text messages, which were in their infancy then. Today, according to Morris, we send and receive around 5 billion text messages every day, though there are no figures on how many of those are spam.

However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which was empowered under CAN-SPAM to police the spamming of wireless devices, has acted to block the flow.

Under FCC rules, the same “express prior authorization” applies to emails on cell phones, and you can’t send a commercial text message to anyone whose number is listed on the Do Not Call (DNC) Registry.

Even if a person is not DNC-listed, you can’t send a text message to anyone via an automated system.

There are exceptions to all of this. For instance, anyone with whom a company has “a prior business relationship” can still send you emails and text messages; so can charities and political organizations.

For more information on the FCC Rules, check out this Guide, Spam: Unwanted Text Messages and Email.

Of course, all of this does nothing to stop the crooks that work outside the law and continue to send out their cell phone spam regardless. So what can you do?

7 Things You Can Do to Halt Cell Phone Spam

Nothing is going to be 100 percent effective but you can do a number of things which will severely restrict the chance of cell phone spam getting through to you, either via emails or text message (and, of course, telemarketing calls). Here are 10 of them:

  1. Get your cell phone (and landline) number on the Do Not Call Registry.We also wrote about the DNC Registry in a recent report on telemarketing harassment, How to Put a Stop to Telemarketing Harassment.
  2. Block text messages that originate on the Internet, rather than someone else’s phone.Most cell phone spam comes this way because it doesn’t cost the spammer anything to send.Your cell phone service provider will tell you how to do this and even how to set up exceptions that allow certain Internet messages to get through to your phone.
  3. Contact your cell phone service provider and ask them to block specific numbers or Internet addresses where you believe your cell phone spam is coming from.
  4. Use a spam filter for incoming email. Set these up either directly on your cell phone or, if you use an online email provider, via their website.Alternatively get your mobile email by syncing with your desktop computer, which presumably does have a spam filter installed.We’re not aware of any service that is capable of automatically filtering text messages, though, no doubt, that’ll happen one day.
  5. Beware of tactics that trick you into giving permission to cell phone spam artists.This could be a clause in the small print of a service or program you sign up for — even on your PC if you’re also asked to give your cell phone number.Another sneaky trick uses free or cheap downloads — ringtones are a prime example.

    Once you download, you’ve established a “prior business relationship” that allows the provider to legally send cell phone spam text messages.

  6. Never, never, never (is that enough?) respond to cell phone spam. If you do, you’ll likely get an avalanche of the stuff and your details will be passed on to other spammers.
  7. Seek further support and guidance from your phone provider.They’re as aware of this problem as anyone. According to David Morris, in his Sun Herald article, Verizon has launched at least 20 lawsuits against alleged wireless spammers and telemarketers.

Above all, it’s important to take prompt action against any cell phone spam you receive, especially text messages you have to pay for.

You should ask your service provider to waive any such charges.

You can also report cell phone spam by filing a complaint with the FCC.

As with all junk mail, cell phone spam is unlikely to disappear anytime soon but you can escape most of it — and maybe have fewer night-time scares — by following our tips.

Time to close — we’re off to take a walk. See you next week.