Stop Cell Phone Spam in Seven Easy StepsKim Boatman
The unsolicited offers for bargain basement prices on Rolexes and sure-fire weight loss tricks are annoying enough when they show up in email on your computer. Just imagine being barraged with this sort of spam on your cell phone.
Cell phone spam is already here, of course. Verizon estimates it blocks as many as 200 million spam messages a month with its filters. But as we increasingly rely on mobile communications -- checking email and communicating in a variety of ways through "smart" Internet-enabled cell phones -- the potential for spam expands exponentially.
The problem is already prevalent overseas, where people are even more reliant on their cell phones. For instance, many Japanese and Koreans have their only email address hosted on mobile devices, says Suresh Ramasubramanian, an Indian anti-spam expert. “It’s a problem that will grow more,’’ says Ramasubramanian. “You already have Bluetooth spam that hits devices within range, and you have mobile viruses that specifically target smartphone devices.”
Most cell phone spam today is received through SMS, or Short Messaging Service. In other words, it shows up in a text message, even though it was likely sent via a computer. Cell phone spam can be risky and costly, on a couple of fronts. First, if you don’t have a text message plan, you could have to pay for unwanted texts. Second, cell phone spam can be used to try to compromise your financial information or to install harmful software on your mobile device. Phishing is an attempt by the bad guys to collect your personal information, such as credit card numbers, through tricky email schemes. "Smishing" is the cell phone equivalent, with con artists texting your phone with messages that link to web sites where you might be asked to reveal confidential information.
“There are bad guys out there,’’ says Debra Lewis of cell phone carrier Verizon, which has filed a handful of lawsuits against spammers. “We’ve done a fair amount to prevent spam.”
Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to fight cell phone spam as well. Here are seven smart strategies:
Call your carrier. Receiving a text message spam is hassle enough. Who wants to fool with investing more time on that offer for discount pharmaceuticals? But it’s a smart idea to talk to your carrier right away after you receive a spam text, says the non-profit Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. Acting immediately can help you reverse the charges for a spam text message. (There are no laws requiring companies to do so. But while your cell carrier might collect fees on spam text messages, remember that it is in the company’s best interests over the long run to keep you happy. “We don’t want our customers to receive messages they don’t want to receive,’’ says Lewis.
Notify authorities. Visit the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) web site and fill out an online complaint form, and contact the attorney general’s office in your state. Most attorneys' general offices maintain web sites where you can file a complaint. The Washington state Attorney General offers an excellent primer on fighting cell phone spam.
Block spam. Most carriers offer a number of options when it comes to blocking text messages. For instance, Verizon allows you to block all text messaging, to block messages from the Internet or to block messages from certain email addresses. On the company’s Vtext web site, scroll down the left side of the page and click on preferences. Register (it’s free) to change your preferences. AT&T also requires you to register, then log in before changing your preferences.
Change your default email address. The email address that lets your phone receive messages from a computer is usually your cell phone number. That makes it easier for spammers to guess your number, as they set up auto-dialers that rapidly run through the many possible combinations of numbers. Visit your provider’s web site to change that email address to something less predictable, advises Lewis. It’s OK to use your name as part of the email address. After all, you’ll want to be able to remember it. But you also want to include numbers and/or symbols, just as you would in a strong password.
Ignore temptation. Sure, that free ringtone playing your favorite song from way back when sounds like a real deal, but you could be the one paying in the end. Downloading free or bargain-priced ringtones and games from third-party sources is risky business. It exposes your phone to malware -- malicious software including viruses and worms that can infect your phone -- and it can put your number in the hands of spammers, says Art Neill, an attorney with Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a San Diego-based non-profit.
Invest in security software. The type of protection you should be using on your computer -- anti-virus protection, a spam filter and a firewall -- is available in security suites, or packages, for your smartphone.
Guard your number. “Be really careful who you share it with,’’ says Neill. Too often, says Neill, we share our number without thinking about who might have access to that information. For instance, be cautious about listing it in public forums, such as social networking sites or on other information you post online. A simple listing in a membership directory could have unwanted consequences.
So far, says Lewis, spam remains a small amount of the overall text messaging traffic in this country. After all, Verizon recently handled a staggering 20 billion text messages in a single month. But all it takes are a couple of annoying texts in the wee hours of the night or a risky smishing text to disrupt your life. “It’s kind of an invasion of privacy when you think about it,” Lewis says. “Your cell phone is with you all the time.”
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