Spam text messages on the rise, UK agency says | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 29.09.2011
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Spam text messages on the rise, UK agency says

As people get wise to the ways of e-mail scams, more spam is landing on mobile phones. A British agency reported a recent spike in text message spam and says it's hard at work to keep mobiles free of unwanted messages.

SMS spam

SMS spam is on the rise worldwide

In the United Kingdom, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) announced earlier this month that it had received 618 complaints about spam text messages between April 2010 and April 2011. However, earlier this month the agency reported a sudden spike with the number of complaints over the last five months jumping to over 1,000.

Text message spam is an issue all over the world. A new anti-SMS spam bill went into effect in India on Tuesday. Now, no single mobile phone user there can send more than 100 messages per day. To learn more, Deutsche Welle contacted Simon Entwistle, the director of operations at the Information Commissioner's Office.

Deutsche Welle: What is the trend concerning text message spam that you've been seeing so far?

Simon Entwistle: The biggest rise is between the number of complaints about spam texts that we received last year and this year, where it went from about 600 to over 1,000 so far this year, since April. In addition to being a larger number, it's a greater percentage of all our complaints. It went from about 3 percent to about 13 percent of all our complaints.

How do you account for this change in complaints?

Spam e-mails

Entwistle said most people quickly and easily delete spam e-mails

There are a number of campaigns by people sending these texts that seem to be increasing significantly. One of them relates to trying to persuade people to making personal injury claims. It might say: "You appear to have been involved in an accident and you might be entitled to claim some money." And we've seen a significant increase in those texts.

Why do people use text to send these spam messages more? We're not entirely sure, but one of our theories is that we're much better at filtering spam e-mails these days. We've got junk inboxes that filter out spam and we're much more likely to delete spam e-mail. If something comes in to you on a text, you're more likely to look at it - so people who are trying to generate business using this approach get more business out of a text message than out of a spam e-mail.

Is there any sense where these spam text messages are coming from?

We think the ones that have caused the biggest rise are from the UK. We've got leads to investigate companies in the UK and, in fact, in the northwest of England, near where we're situated. It's clear from the actual messages themselves that they relate specifically to issues here in the UK: one of them has to do with debt consolidation, which is an issue in the UK, and also personal protection insurance, so we think they are generated from within the UK for the most part.

What is the legal status of spam text messages in the UK? Is there a legal means for your agency or other government agencies to go after the perpetrators?

Woman with mobile

Nearly half of all UK mobile users have received spam texts

Yes, there is. It's a breach of the Privacy and the Electronic Communications Regulations to send one of these texts without permission. We can go after them. That's been in force for some time. But since May 2011, we can now fine people if they are seen to have breached those regulations. The amount we can fine goes up to 500,000 pounds (573, 550 euros), which is quite a significant amount. Obviously, we would only use that for the most significant breaches. But we've got quite significant powers, but as of yet we have not used those powers.

Since you've noticed this rise, has this spurred the ICO into further investigations or perhaps even prosecutions?

There is quite a clear approach. We're trying to find the people who are sending the texts and shutting them down. We've had some limited success there, but we haven't actually caught anyone yet. The second thing we're trying to do is to educate the public, and what they should do when they receive one of these texts. The answer there is just delete it, don't reply to it if it comes from someone that you don't know. Thirdly, we're trying to get to those organizations that use the leads that come from someone who has sent spam texts and tell them that if they use those leads - in other words, pay money to someone who has got that lead for them - they themselves could be in breach of the regulations. When we tell them that, they're pretty quick in stopping the practice. What that does is that it cuts off demand so the people who send the spam texts have no one to sell the leads on to when they get them.

Interview: Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Sean Sinico

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