15/01/2013 07:52 GMT | Updated 16/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Meeting the Global Challenge of SMS Spammers

Until recently spamming used to be limited to email and post. But increased competition, cloud messaging services and the growing availability of low-priced text bundles have made mobile an increasingly attractive and lucrative option for spammers. Most of us consider text spam a nuisance - but what starts as an annoyance can very quickly turn into fraud. We've all received text messages offering thousands of pounds to consumers because of mis-sold Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) and while the majority of us ignore them, the increasing sophistication of scams means more of us are becoming victims. We've seen this happen in America over the last few years and with 60% of the British population having received these kinds of unsolicited messages, this is becoming an important issue for mobile users in the UK.

The UK has been hit in particular by claims farming; a process conducted using pre-pay SIM cards, usually by disreputable businesses in unregulated markets. These businesses send out messages suggesting that the recipient is entitled to unclaimed compensation from the miss-selling of a financial product, most often PPI: "IMPORTANT - You could be entitled up to £3,160 in compensation from mis-sold PPI on a credit card or loan. Please reply PPI for info or STOP to opt out." On average 3.5% of recipients reply, a big number considering at one point these businesses were sending nearly 13 million SMS messages per month. Call centres will sell the details of anyone who responds to a scam SMS for £5 per lead to 'claims farmers' who act as a middleman - taking the most legitimate claims and selling them on for up to £500 to law firms. The law firms contact the original recipient and they are paid commission when clients take out insurance to cover costs under no-win-no-fee arrangements. This mix of activity has caused the market to reach a high value - worth over £170m in the UK alone. This is thought to have increased further in 2012, with attackers rushing to capitalise before a ban on referral fees is enforced in 2013.

The priority for both consumers and operators alike is shutting down this illegal industry before it grows any further. Most recently, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) served penalties totalling £440,000 to the owners of Tetrus Telecoms, a marketing company which had sent out millions of spam texts over the past three years. While the ICO fining offenders is a positive step, the fines will most likely only drive spammers to send texts from abroad into the UK. Mobile operators are already working to ensure they have the most effective technology in place to counteract this from happening, but consumers need the tools to report spam easily which will give the mobile industry the data to find and stop spammers. Most people we asked didn't know how to report spam at all. Most operators have a shortcode reporting number you can send the spammer's number to, allowing anyone to quickly report SMS spam. If you receive any unsolicited messages report them, avoid clicking on links and remember that anything which seems too good to be true usually is. If we act now, there is no reason why we cannot get rid of this headache entirely and preserve a channel which is very much trusted by the nation.