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The Emerging Threat of Cell Phone Spam

By John P. Mello Jr.
Nov 8, 2006 4:00 AM PT

The scourge of the wired world -- spam -- is making its presence felt in the wireless realm, but carriers hope they can stunt the problem in its formative stage.

The Emerging Threat of Cell Phone Spam

"Spam isn't a problem; however, it's an evolving threat that carriers are constantly working to combat," Joe Farren, a spokesperson for CTIA-The Wireless Association, told TechNewsWorld.

Volume Still Small

Verizon Wireless has experienced spam outbreaks ranging from 30,000 to a million messages, noted spokesperson Debbi Lewis. That's still small, though, when one considers the company may handle as many as five billion messages per month.

However, "just like with a desktop computer, consumers play a critical role," he continued. "They need to be mindful of who they give their wireless phone number to, and they need to be mindful of any content they place on their phone."

As with their wired counterparts, mobile carriers use network security measures to foil spammers. "They are always refortifying their firewalls to respond to the newest spam threats," Farren noted.

For example, Sprint Nextel's filter technology can reduce the number of unsolicited text messages and advertisements that are sent to its subscribers, said Mark Elliott, communications manager at the telecom.

If they receive an unsolicited text message, "one of the things we look for our customers to do ... is that they contact our care department so we can send out a cease and desist letter to the individuals or companies that are abusing the system," Elliott added.

Taking It to Court

In addition to fighting spam via technology, the carriers are also attacking it in the courts.

Cingular, for example, has obtained six injunctions against data brokers who sell improperly obtained cell phone records, and has also filed four lawsuits in federal court against telemarketers for the unauthorized use of its wireless network.

Verizon, too, has pursued spammers and telemarketers through the courts. For example, in a notable victory earlier this year, it obtained an injunction against a Miami-based travel firm, All Star Vacation Marketing Group.

Duped by Vendor

According to All Star's attorney, Jason S. Oletsky, of Kluger, Peretz, Kaplan & Berlin, the firm was duped by an unscrupulous outsourcer peddling call center services. The call center told All Star that it had a list of people who wanted to receive telemarketing calls and that its telemarketing activities were legal.

"We had no idea that the company we contracted with was violating the law until we were served with the lawsuit," Oletsky said. "Upon being served with the lawsuit, we contacted counsel for Verizon and immediately consented to an injunction.

"Any company that's interested in marketing a product will use this type of service," he added. "You just hope that the service you're contracting with is telling you the truth. Some are more scrupulous than others. This one was not very scrupulous."

Carrier Spam

Ironically, the wireless carriers have been known to spam their own customers.

For instance, the California Public Utilities Commission last month settled a cell spamming case brought against Sprint and Cingular by the Utility Consumers' Action Network (UCAN).

"To their credit, both companies acknowledged the problems raised by UCAN and took some concrete steps to prevent them from happening again," the organization said on its Web site.

"The cases clearly establish that wireless companies shouldn't send spam to [their] customers and then charge them," it maintained, "and that when third-party providers try to wrongfully bill wireless customers, the carrier has the obligation to fix the unauthorized or inaccurate bill by that third-party content provider."

That concern over third-party business practices extends beyond the borders of the Golden State. In early 2007, the industry will launch a multimillion dollar program to monitor and audit companies that provide third-party services to subscribers, according to CTIA's Farren.

"If you do something wrong, you're not going to be able to do business with the wireless industry anymore," he added.

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