November 15, 2006 4:00 AM PST
Text message spam could spell trouble for text-based ads
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In addition to costing consumers money, some of these unwanted text messages have turned out to be what's known as "smishing" attacks or "phishing" attacks adapted for the SMS protocol used to send text messages. Some of these attacks ask recipients to register for a service. Then they attempt to get people to accept a virus or worm on their handset. Others try to extract credit card numbers and other private data.
Most spammers send messages from the Internet using a computer, which allows them to avoid charges associated with sending messages from a phone. But in many ways, this makes finding the spammers relatively easy for the wireless phone companies.
Using basic filtering tools, cell phone operators can detect high volumes of messages coming from a particular Internet account. And if a particular region is affected, they can easily detect an attack.
That's exactly how Verizon Wireless was able to stop an outbreak of text message spam in May, when 1.1 million messages offering discount prescription medications were sent to Verizon Wireless customers in New Jersey. The company noticed that 70 percent of the spam was going to a few area codes. Verizon Wireless was able to track down the Web site where the spam was coming from, in Poland, and have it shut down.
In June, Verizon Wireless filed suit against the company. Since then, it's filed two other lawsuits against text message spammers. In October, it launched a legal action against a company that had sent 30,000 text messages urging recipients to buy stocks. And in September, it sued another spammer for sending more than 550,000 text messages pushing penny stocks to subscribers in New York City.
Cingular Wireless has also begun taking legal action against text spammers. In October, the company filed three federal lawsuits against text spammers in federal court in Atlanta. The complaints claim that the companies violated the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
The cell phone companies' efforts seem to be paying off. In September, Verizon Wireless said that 5 billion text messages traveled over its network for the month. And the company was able to catch 30,000 it believed were spam.
"Of course, any unsolicited message is one too many for a customer," said Debbie Lewis, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless. "But when you look at the numbers, we are able to stop the attacks before they get out of hand."
So what can consumers do to stop receiving unwanted text messages? First, they can limit the number of people they give their cell phone number to. Second, if they do receive a text spam, they should contact their cell phone operator to report the issue and receive a credit. And third, they can disable the text-messaging feature. Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless say they allow customers to disable or block unwanted text messages by using a tool on their companies' Web sites.
Even though mobile operators seem to have text message spam under control, they still need to be careful that they don't annoy customers with legitimate text message marketing, experts say.
"The real problem could be text-based advertising from the carriers and their partners," said Iain Gillott, founder of iGillott Research.
"We have yet to see how consumers will react to this," he added. "Companies are still trying different models. But if customers threaten to leave, the carriers will have to stop it. The last thing they want is for people to churn."
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