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New frontiers in spam

Text message spam. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long to be seen as a major problem.

Once the scourge of e-mail providers and the Postal Service, spammers have infiltrated the last refuge of spam-free communication: cellphones. In the United States, consumers received roughly 4.5 billion spam texts last year, more than double the 2.2 billion received in 2009, according to Ferris Research, a market research firm that tracks spam.

Spread over 250 million text message-enabled phones, the problem is not as commonplace as e-mail spam. But it is a growing menace, with the potential for significant damage.

“Unsolicited text messaging is a pervasive problem,” said Christine Todaro, a lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission, the consumer watchdog agency, which is turning to the courts for help. “It is becoming very difficult to track down who is sending the spam. We encourage consumers to file complaints, which helps us track down the spammers, but even then it is a little bit like peeling back an onion.”

Although some text spam is of the harmless, if annoying, marketing variety, a vast majority is more insidious, experts say. With one mobile tap, smartphone users risk signing up for a bogus, impossible-to-cancel service.

Or they may succumb to that offer for a Walmart gift card or a free iPhone in exchange for taking a survey and divulging all sorts of personal information, like their addresses or their transaction history — which can then be sold to digital marketers or even used to crack their bank accounts.

And, so far, it is hard to stop it. Even replying to unwanted messages with “NO” or “STOP” — the usual method for unsubscribing from an unwanted text message list — may only verify to spammers that you have a working number that can then be resold.

Scrambling to get a better grasp on the problem, the mobile industry last month joined with a maker of antispam software, Cloudmark, on a new reporting service that lets users forward mobile spam to “7726,” a number that spells SPAM on most keypads. Carriers will then use that information to block numbers.

People were told the same thing about email spam 15 years ago. I don’t know why anyone would ever respond to a spam message – it seems to me that the spam business would dry up completely if people would just wise up – but there you have it. There are some technological ways to fight back against the spammers if you’re so inclined. I figure the cell providers will eventually get a better handle on this. I mean, between what Gmail does and whatever our corporate spam filter does I hardly see any genuine spam in my inbox these days. It’s still being sent to me, I just don’t see it any more. Surely the same fate awaits the text message spammers.

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  1. Michael says:

    Tidbits has a recent article about the process.

    Pretty good. I’d also recommend the “Mark the Spot” app if you’re on AT&T. It doesn’t actually report Spam, but it tells you how and is also useful for making sure AT&T knows where there are network problems.

  2. Ross says:

    Jerry Pournelle, the science fiction and computer writer, thinks that the only effective method to eliminate spam in the long run is to put the heads of spammers on poles at the city gates. To some extent, I agree with that. You may not see much spam, but when 80+ percent of email traffic is garbage, and the costs of that fall largely on the recipients, there’s a problem. Unless the penalties for spam are large and painful, there is little disincentive for the spammers to stop.

    as for text spam, that does cost me money, because I don’t have an unlimited plan. I don’t text much at all, 10 or fewer a month, so the 20 cent per text charge from Verizon should be less than the unlimited plan. Unless I get spam texts. I will be annoyed if I have to go to the unlimited plan because of spam.