The UK and USA have both seen a reduction of 35-40 % in SMS spam following action by regulatory bodies against companies responsible for unsolicited text messages in the last six months. As a consumer, it is satisfying to know that these companies that offer false promises, waste time and money are being held to account. It demonstrates that when authorities do enforce regulations, it can also work as a deterrent. I also see this as a positive indication of further results that can be achieved through co-operation between the regulators, GSMA, mobile operators and software vendors.
In November 2012, the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) in the UK fined the two owners of a company in the north of England, £440,000 for a serious breach of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR). The company was found to be using unregistered pay as you go SIM cards to send out as many as 840,000 illegal text messages a day, with an income of £7,000 - £8,000 a day. The majority of these unsolicited messages were about claiming compensation for Personal Protection Insurance (PPI). This kind of spam appeared after legislators determined that refunds were due to loan recipients who had been mis-sold this type of insurance.
In October 2012, the percentage of PPI spam as part of the total was as high as 57 %. After the fines were issued at the end of November and the natural lull over the holiday period, in February 2013 it was down to 23 % of total spam (taken from the GSMA Spam Reporting Service figures for the UK). While it is good that this action by the ICO has had an impact - if only temporary, the bad news is that these individuals are now operating from outside the UK, in a position to continue sending spam SMS across borders, proving that this issue is global and cannot be solved by local regulation.
In similar circumstances in the USA, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed eight complaints made up of 29 charges, over gift card SMS scams that falsely offered victims the chance to win free gift cards and prizes. The Cloudmark Q1 2013 Global eMessaging Threat Report found that the number of gift card SMS spam threats dropped from over 50 % to less than 10 %, of daily SMS spam. The charges levelled by the FTC seem to have had a noticeable effect on the volume of gift card scams sent out from 1 January to 31 March 2013, although the spam landscape is very different in the USA than in the UK - as it is in every global market. Software filters that stop spam SMS at source have already been implement by the majority of US networks, so the US is one of the most advanced markets in tackling the threat, whereas SMS spam filters are not yet in place at any UK operator.
Regulation is part of the spam SMS puzzle, but it is unfortunately not going to provide a solution on its own. This is simply because the problem is just too big and too global. In India, for example, the Government has created legislation after legislation in an attempt to stop spam SMS, but the scale is just too vast to bring offenders to justice and the problem is only getting worse. In the UK, consumers may currently expect to see one or two spam texts per week, in India this can be as much as one or two per minute. It is good to see the ICO using its power to issue a monetary penalty for a serious breach of the regulations in regards to SMS spam for the first time, and it is nice to know that they are looking at three other companies, but regulation on its own is simply not the answer. If politicians and pressure groups want to make a real difference in the fight against spam SMS, they should consider lobbying mobile operators to stop the spam at source by implementing filtering technology.
What can you do as a consumer? You can report any SMS spam you receive to your operator. Submit suspicious texts by forwarding the message to '7726' (S-P-A-M). This is the same number for the US and the UK. This is then fed into the GSMA Spam Reporting Service, powered by Cloudmark, which provides participating operators with comprehensive reports that include detailed information on spam content, senders and reporters. Operators can then utilise this information to block numbers, helping to reduce further spam.