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The 411 on Text Msg Spam

Kim Hart

With so many text messages flying around these days, they've become fertile territory for spammers trying to expand their reach.

Estimates vary greatly as to just how much of a problem spam text messaging has become. Cloudmark, a San Francisco company that makes anti-spam software for carriers, expects the amount of text spam to quadruple this year. Hugh McCartney, Cloudmark's CEO, paid a visit to several members of Congress and Justice Department staffers in December to warn them of the impending problem. By his estimates, about 5 percent of U.S. text messages are spam-related. He pointed to statistics about the problem overseas: In India, as much as 30 percent of all text messages sent are spam, he said. In China, he estimates that number has reached 50 percent.

McCartney said he got a surprised response on Capitol Hill. Regulation would probably not solve the problem, the legislators concluded. Instead, the wireless industry would have to step up their defenses against such spam.

The origins of text message spam are thought to be similar to those of email: automated computer-generated messages blitz hundreds or thousands of consumers at once. But the guesswork involved in targeting cellphone numbers is easier than randomly selecting e-mail addresses; while an e-mail address has a unique sequence of characters and a variable length, phone numbers are standard 10 digits.

Cellphones are also vulnerable to what are called blended smishing attacks, which combine text messages with phone numbers and Internet links. Fred Felman of MarkMonitor said he's seen some attacks send text messages asking consumers to click on a link on over their Internet connection or call a phone number that appears to be legitimate, all in an effort to get more information out of you.

Some spam experts don't think text message spam will ever reach the extreme levels of e-mail spam, mainly because wireless carriers have more control over what connects to their networks. But others speculate that spammers could find new opportunity as some carriers bow to industry pressure to open up their networks.

By Kim Hart  |  March 10, 2008; 10:23 AM ET  | Category:  Kim Hart
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This would present a real problem for those people who have plans which charge per SMS/MMS message.

Posted by: aphexcoil | March 12, 2008 2:28 PM

Sure... this may be true... but the source of the information is from a company that's main business is to provide filters for sms spam. It's in their best interests for everyone to think this is a problem or is going to be a problem. In china he "estimates" that it is 50%... from the article this looks like a figure thrown into the air scare congress and get people on his side...

my thoughts are: sure... it could be a problem... but considering the source take it with a grain of salt...

Posted by: Gerard L. Petersen | March 12, 2008 2:56 PM

My best friend has forbidden me to text him, even though we are both on T-Mobile plans that offer lots of free text. His reason? He's started getting text spam and is convinced that somehow it's my fault, like my text had cooties.

Posted by: Wendy | March 12, 2008 3:25 PM

Since I doubt spammers are going to use cellphone numbers to send spam (it will cost them) the only way they can send it is through the carrier's website. Log on to their website and disable the text messaging by pc feature. Stops 100% of spam. (verified on Cingular/ATT)

Posted by: Dave | March 12, 2008 3:26 PM

That would be a wonderful answer if it weren't for the fact that I depend on emails sent to my phone via the carier as about half of my communication with my family. As it is, I don't think it would be at all unreasonable for the celular carriers to throw up some basic anti-spam software, or even band together to track and actively block or attack spam sources. If they were to band together in this manner the shear volume of data they'd have would be more than enough to punch a large hole in the spamming business, and it would probably impact email spam as well.

- Verizon customer receiving spam

Posted by: Tim | March 12, 2008 4:25 PM

I received four of these over a span of 12 hours the other day. What made it even worse was that it was between 11 p.m. and 11 a.m. and they woke me until I shut the thing off.

I don't subscribe to any random services or text for contests, ringtones, etc (in those cases I could see where my number might be sold). Luckily I'm on an unlimited plan but yes, aphexcoil is right.

Posted by: ML | March 12, 2008 5:37 PM

I've been getting these for months. Some days, I'll get zero, some days, I'll get a dozen. At one point, I was averaging four a day. Over the course of 30 days, that's 120 messages -- and what happened? I went over my plan by about 108 messages.

Verizon has offered little to no help. They won't waive the fee, and worse yet, they're solution is to tell me to reply to the messages saying "UNSUBSCRIBE." Oh sure, I bet they'll stop sending them right away. The only thing that is going to do is double my problem - instead of being 108 over, I'd be 216 over. Great

I'm pretty close to changing my number as a result.

Posted by: JH | March 14, 2008 5:56 PM

AT&T wireless customers can modify their preferences for receiving text messages here:

You will need to log in to your account.

I suggest at least checking the box for "Block all text messages sent to you as email," because I think the majority of spam messages are sent this way.

Posted by: thefrog5 | March 15, 2008 11:23 AM

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