Lawsuit takes aim at SMS spam

Posting a sign on your mailbox used to be enough to stop the flow of junk mail into your home. But today, it seems there’s no escape from spam – it arrives in our email, is beamed onto our screens through social media and pops up on otherwise informative or entertaining message boards.

Annoying? Absolutely. Illegal? Indeed. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) appears to have had enough, launching a massive crackdown on those exploiting the latest spam medium: The cell phone.

Globally, 200,000 text messages sent every second, making the short, digital transmissions an irresistible venue for spammers and con artists eager to reel in their next victim. And it’s on the rise – Cloudmark estimates text message spam campaigns grew by a whopping 300 per cent between 2011 and 2012, quadrupling in the first half of 2012. Over 90 per cent of spam text messages are sent with the intent to defraud the recipient. Most are phishing scams, playfully dubbed “SMiShing,” a play on the SMS acronym.

This month the government agency filed lawsuits in eight different federal courts accusing 29 people of unfair or deceptive trade practices, which is a violation of the FTC Act. The spammers are alleged to have sent more than 180 million unsolicited text messages to random numbers. It was more than annoyance for some – anyone without a SMS plan paid to receive them.

The messages promised free prizes or gift cards to big box department stores, but when recipients clicked through the link to claim the offering, they were redirected to sites that harvested sensitive personal information. Sometimes people were led through several screens where they applied for credit cards or even paid for a subscription just to receive their “free” prize. Similar scams pop up often on Facebook.

“As many as 13 different offers are required to complete supposedly just to receive this free gift card,” said FTC investigator Steve Wernikoff. “The offers they’re presented with include offers to apply for credit, offers to sign up for a free trial offer for various products. At the end of the day, after they complete all those steps, 13 or more steps, they’re often presented with something that says now find three more people who will fill out this information.”

At least one person named in the lawsuit isn’t a first-time offender. One man banned from sending spam text messages in 2011 was scooped up in the sting. The FTC says those who sent the messages were paid by the owners of the websites that collected the information. A fee was paid to the websites by businesses that benefited from new subscriptions or sales from the data harvesting.

As the numbers indicate, this recent case isn’t an isolated incident. Earlier this week, Toys ’R’ Us was slapped with a class action lawsuit in California. It is accused of sending unsolicited spam messages to cell phones, a violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

An AT&T study that examined SMS spamming patterns found nearly all unsolicited messages were sent using pre-paid mobile phones. The typical spammer kept their mobile account open for less than 11 days. California – more specifically Sacramento, Orange County and Los Angeles – and Miami Beach were identified as hotbeds of spam activity.

How do consumers protect themselves? First, be smart. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Delete any suspicious text messages upon receipt and never click through any links or call telephone numbers provided within. Make sure to notify your mobile service provider … some even provide a number for you to forward the messages to for review. It will help the provider track down the person sending the spam.