Advertising Sent To Cellphones Opens New Front In War on Spam

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2008

The spam messages that have long plagued e-mail inboxes are now finding victims through a much more personal route: the cellphone.

Text messages are the latest tool for advertisers and scammers to target consumers. But unlike junk e-mail that can be deleted with the click of a button, text-message spam costs money for the person who receives it and chips away at the mobile phone's aura of privacy.

"It's so annoying because I get charged every time I get one," said Ryan Williams, 27, of Falls Church, who receives half a dozen spam messages on a daily basis. They ask him to download ring tones, visit questionable sites over his phone's Internet connection or urge him to subscribe to horoscopes or sports-score updates.

Williams downloaded a program that was supposed to block texts from numbers not stored in his phone's contact list, but the junk messages still get through. Spammers even make the messages appear as if they're coming from his own number, so his wireless carrier cannot block them.

"Spam e-mail usually goes right into my spam filter, but the texts are there, on my phone, and they just keep coming," he said.

More than 1 billion text messages are sent every day in the United States. U.S. consumers are expected to receive about 1.5 billion spam text messages this year, up from 1.1 billion last year and 800 million in 2006, according to Ferris Research, a San Francisco market research firm. Those are conservative figures; some estimates are far higher. Verizon Wireless said it blocks more than 200 million spam text messages every month, and cellphone companies are ramping up efforts to shut them out by taking spammers to court and by using more sophisticated filters.

Compared with spam e-mail, junk text messages are seen as more invasive because the cellphone is more intimate and is used for one-on-one communication -- a quality marketers are trying to utilize. Political campaigns and banks use text messages to mobilize voters or send account balance updates. Travel site offers text-message updates on flight status. Television shows such as "American Idol" ask viewers to vote or take polls via text messages, and social networking sites like Facebook often use such notes to update members about friends' activities.

Spam is often a nuisance, but more malicious messages can lead to a new form of fraud called smishing, a variation of a spam e-mail attack known as phishing. Smishing attacks, called such because text messages are also known as SMS messages, disguise themselves as legitimate messages from e-commerce or financial sites such as eBay, PayPal or banks, and seek to dupe consumers into giving up account numbers or passwords.

Lori Small, a massage therapist in Ellicott City, fell for such a come-on. Her bank sends her a text message every time a transaction occurs on her checking account. In November, a message informed her that her account was overdrawn and asked her to provide the last four digits of her Social Security number to verify her ownership of the account. She sent the four digits to the sender.

After getting suspicious, she called her bank, which told her it did not send the message and that it has a policy of not asking for account details via cellphone. She changed her cellphone number and now closely monitors her balance for any mysterious changes.

"I couldn't believe how sneaky it was," she said. "I mean, e-mail spam is one thing, but this is my personal phone number . . . and now someone out there has one more clue about who I am."

Spam messages and smishing attacks are more prevalent in Asia, where consumers often use phones to access the Internet and are more accustomed to receiving mobile advertisements, said Richi Jennings, an analyst who studies spam issues for Ferris Research.

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