Mobile Phone SMS Spam Can be Expensive

I recently started receiving spam (unsolicited) text messages on my iPhone. I first received one on New Year's Eve, at 8:31 p.m., and then again at 5:00 a.m. a few days later (nice wakeup call... thanks).

These messages were all from some company named 'GagaCell', which didn't turn up many good search results (most were about Lady Gaga, and I'm pretty sure she doesn't harass people with text messages—just her music and lack of style.

GagaCell IQ Spam Text Message

After some online research, I discovered that many people, even after sending STOP to these shortcodes, end up with monthly charges on their cell phone bills. Since I watch my bill pretty closely, I noticed that, all the sudden, I was getting a $9.99 subscription from 'BULLROARE', a content provider I'd never heard of, from short code 31850 (The subscription name was 'IQ32CALL8668611606').

From my work with flockNote, I know just how difficult (and expensive!) it is to get and maintain a shortcode, and how difficult it is to meet all the mobile phone carrier's stringent requirements for legimacy... so I was surprised that there is/was almost no way to retaliate against these spammers!

A Rampant Problem

Looking around online, I found countless forum threads and blog posts on the topic.

There are literally thousands of people finding these fraudulent charges on their bills, and in addition, I'm sure there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, who have no idea they're getting an extra $9.99, $19.99 or more on their monthly bills!

I asked the kind AT&T representative who I called about any method of reporting short code abuse or spam, and she said, "Well, you can call the number for the company that owns the shortcode. It's on your bill."

Yeah, just like I'm going to ask the used car salesman if the car he's selling is really the best deal I can find.

Sigh.

Purchase Block

Like Dan, from the blog Ordering Disorder, I asked the AT&T representative if there was any way I could prevent automated subscriptions on my line, and she mentioned something called 'Purchase Block.'

Basically, any time a company adds any charges to my AT&T bill (which currently happens invisibly to me), I will now get a text message from AT&T asking me to enter my 'parental control' PIN to authorize the charge. What a brilliant idea!

Just like Dan, though, I wonder why this is not the default. It's as if AT&T was in cahoots with these spammy companies... I truly believe that if AT&T seriously cared for its customers more than its own interests, it would not allow any company to automatically bill anyone for anything without the user's explicit authorization. That's kinda how it works for everything else in the world.

Reporting Abuse / Spam Shortcodes

As mentioned earlier, the representative told me that if I wanted to report abuse/spam from the shortcode, I should contact the 1-800 number on the bill for the company that was actually spamming me. No thanks! You'd think AT&T, Verizon, etc. would care more about preventing spam for its users...

Does anyone else know anything about a more effective way to shut down frequent abusers like 31850 (Bullroare from mblox.com), or 25870 (GagaCell IQ), both of whom are from the same company, which can be reached at 1-866-861-1606?

Calling the company and telling them they should shut down their primary source of income is not going to help (in fact, they'll probably try sending SMS messages to the Skype or Google number I'd call them from!).

[Update: This article from TidBITS has one way that you can report spam messages via AT&T's 'Mark the Spot' app: Report Text Message Spam to AT&T].

Comments

Hmm... just got a new text from 944-08, advertising 'Brain Cool IQ facts' - who would ever sign up for these things, really?

Just got hit with this same spammer. I suspect it's the STOP message that actually signed us up. I have requested from both AT&T and mblox (listed on the bill as the contact for the charge) the communication that authorized the charge.
Being angry at AT&T, however, got me thinking about MPAA getting angry at ISPs and search engines. AT&T is providing the infrastructure upon which we can conduct business with third parties. And similar to MPAA, it's that third party that's stealing from me! Punishing AT&T would be akin to SOPA or PIPA laws (it's too difficult to find the pirate ships, so punish the ocean that floats them). I like to try to view the issue from the other side, and this helped me sympathize a just little with the MPAA's situation.
However, since AT&T is fully authorizing and billing us for the transaction without our permission, they do in fact bare responsibility and should probably be *criminally* liable. This is the (huge) difference between AT&T+fraudulent text charge and a given online domain+online piracy. But this means that AT&T's text messaging is a digital infrastructure alternative to the internet. In effect, it's a competitor and a big revenue producer for the carriers. Given that I have internet access on my phone, these carriers also serve as ISPs. But look at how much we pay per byte for data verses texts. It's staggering how much we pay for those 140 characters. If people were at all rational, we'd all block text messaging from our mobile plans and use an online service like Facebook, Google Chat, or some other instant messenger. Then we wouldn't be having this issue.

Almost all the people I text with on a regular basis use iOS devices, so most of us communicate via iMessage now (instead of SMS). But enough others use SMS, still, so I can't get off that dratted $20-a-month scam that is text messaging... :(

Just got a new spam message from 77050 for 'MobChance IQ', but from the same 866 number.

I got the same GagaCell texts from mblox, and I actually didn't reply STOP because I figured that maybe if I didn't, I wouldn't get charged. But guess what? $9.99 turned up on my bill anyway. So StarTrekRedneck, you probably would have been charged no matter what.

I just got my next monthly bill, and lo-and-behold, there's yet another $9.99/month subscription on it—AFTER I asked to have my line with the PIN code confirmation. My wife's also getting some GagaCell texts now :(

After having spoke with AT&T, I agree with Amanda that there was little if anything we could have done to prevent this. @Jeff Geerling, that's very disturbing. I hold AT&T fully accountable. This is probably worthy of a class action suit against AT&T. If they are going to play PayPal, then they better authorize those transactions!

I wonder if this is also a problem on Verizon and other carriers... If so, it might not necessarily be something we could call it AT&T on, specifically. (Just got another text from another company today. Grr!).

@Jeff Geering. Yes this is a problem with other carriers. I use T-Mobile. I also received the same text. Once in October, I responded with the stop, and nothing happened, then again at the end of Jan. This time it showed up on my bill even though I text'd stop. Had to call T-mobile to get it off. I have reported this to the FCC, and a couple of other agencies with no joy. It probably will require a lawsuit to stop this. Maybe someone should call Clark Howard, he makes a pretty good squeeky wheel.

Jeff, I just came across your post after having a similar experience. I also wrote about it, but you are for more deft at brevity than I. :)

It's amazing that standard-operating-proceedure for the cell companies appears to be "Let people steal from our customers unless said customers explicitly request otherwise."

Best quote from your article:

So, what does Purchase Blocker do, you ask? In a nutshell, if somebody tries to charge something to your phone, you the end user must explicitly agree to it. That’s it. If you are reading this and saying “But it’s not that way be default?! That’s batshit crazy!” then I’d have to agree with you.

I can't believe that this is not on by default, and I would have to guess that the carriers are somehow getting something out of this, otherwise why would they feel at ALL okay about screwing their customers so royally?

I agree, it's hard not to go there. People calling and complaining about this, having charges reversed, etc. is by no means free for the wireless companies. And yet, the inane policy remains in place.

...and yet again, a new monthly bill, a new subscription for which I never signed up. The details this time? MistyMobileAlerts, short code 94408, ID 10186, Provider Dream Audio, Contact http://www.mxtelecom.com, and a cost of $9.99/month.

Ridiculous. On the phone with AT&T for the third month in a row...

(As it turns out, this one was on my wife's phone line, which now has purchase blocker turned on. Why is that not the default?).

I have recently had this issue with Verizon. They reversed the charges and but a "block" on the lines so this can not happen again.

For those of you who think AT&T isn't to blame for what third parties are putting on your bill you need to know that AT&T gets paid for the billing. So AT&T makes money off these scams as well.

It definitely seems like a bit of a scam/ripoff to me.

Just got a message today from 332-88: "Enter PIN 4 myringtonespot.com Rington/Wallppr/Alrts 3msgs/wk 100Credits@$9.99/mth PIN:XXXX Msg&data rates may apply Txt HELP for help 8002357105

Grr...