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Phone companies fighting spam texts

Customers can report the illegal messages

ATLANTA – Lesley-Ann Thompson’s cellphone buzzed the other week with a text message telling her she had won a $1,000 gift card from Best Buy.

“It said my entry had won, and I knew I hadn’t entered anything,” Thompson said.

Best Buy had nothing to do with the text message, the contest or the alleged gift card. The whole thing was a fraud, as confirmed by Thompson’s fiance. He searched online and discovered a list of responses from people who said they had received a similar message on their mobile phones.

But some consumers may be lured in by what seems like free money. They open an attached link or call the number included in the message. After following a few prompts, someone has their financial or personal information as well as the ability to steal money from them.

As more people buy smartphones, the opportunity for scams becomes more attractive. Mobile phone consumers received 1.5 billion spam text messages in 2008, for example. In 2011, that figure shot up to 4.5 billion spam text messages, according to Ferris Research, a market research firm that tracks mobile spam.

While striking, those numbers are significantly less than 1 percent of all text messages that go out, said Lance Skelly, spokesman for Atlanta-based AT&T Mobility, the nation’s No. 2 wireless carrier.

Text spamming is illegal, but that’s not stopping spammers, who typically start by sending out tens of thousands of messages at once. Most use a computer to generate millions of mobile phone number combinations, hoping even a fraction of those numbers are working and that someone will respond.

“Most people would probably figure out it’s not a legitimate website,” he said. “Sometimes these messages prey on people who are having a hard time and who are in a real need.”

Mobile phone companies are trying to fight back with a combination of internal security measures and by asking customers to aggressively report spam messages to their wireless carrier.

Security company Cloudmark created a spam messaging reporting service that the nation’s major wireless carriers agreed earlier this year to start using. Now, customers of AT&T Mobility, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Sprint and others can forward their text spam message to 7726. The mobile phone carrier will ask customers for the phone number that’s linked to the spam message so they and Cloudmark can start investigating.

“Whenever (a spam message) comes to you, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t say anything to anybody,” said Jeff Blyskal, a senior editor at Consumer Reports magazine.

Two federal laws ban text spam in most instances. A few cases have made it to the courts. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission settled a case against an alleged spammer accused of sending unsolicited commercial messages pitching mortgage modification services to consumers. The man also was accused of misrepresenting that he was affiliated with a government agency.

Christine Todaro, an attorney with the FTC, said customer complaints were “pivotal” in prosecuting the case. The man was banned from sending text messages as part of the settlement reached.

Not every text message from a retailer, mobile phone company or service provider is spam. But companies are prohibited by federal law from sending out messages unless a customer gives an “OK,” which is usually by signing up online or in a store.

“If something doesn’t look right, look into it,” said Kate Jay, an Atlanta-area spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless.

If a message instructs you to type “STOP,” saying you won’t get any more texts, the opposite is true. Sending “STOP” only confirms that the mobile phone number is a working one. At the very least, ignore the text spam message, though experts point out that doesn’t help track down the source.


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