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Cell phone owners pay price for spam

What happens when advertisements are sent through wireless devices, forcing people to unwittingly pay for the messages? Call it a "spamcaign."

The growing number of U.S. cell phone owners sending each other short text messages are experiencing a rather dubious side effect: wireless spam.

Spam on wireless devices isn't just an annoyance like the unsolicited e-mails sent to personal computers. Wireless spam, in the form of 160-character text messages, costs the cell phone users money. Most carriers, like AT&T Wireless and Sprint, charge a few pennies to both send a short message and receive one.

Carriers are spending billions of dollars to build new, faster phone networks, and hope that services like short text messaging will help recoup some of the costs. But analysts think the nation's 123 million wireless users, just now starting to send each other text messages, might be put off permanently if they see a few extra dollars added to their bills because of spam.

"It's absolutely unacceptable to be involved in advertising where you pass the cost onto the consumer," said Rodney Joffe, head of the anti-spam group Whitehat. "When it comes to cell phones, it costs them nothing to send it but costs anyone with a cell phone money. The recipient ends up paying."

Joffe says he got so many alleged spam messages sent to his cell phone he filed a lawsuit. The suit is still pending and Joffe said that he is working on converting it into a class-action suit because of a growing number of complaints.

In one of the earliest known legal actions involving wireless spam, Verizon Wireless took Phoenix-based Acacia National Mortgage to court because it allegedly sent about 170,000 short messages to Verizon subscribers in Colorado and Arizona.

Verizon spokesman Brian Wood said Friday that the company settled out of court in what is believed to be the first-ever use of an anti-spamming law to tackle unwanted wireless e-mails. Verizon subscribers who received these wireless messages won't have to pay for them, he said.

The attorney who represented Acacia did not return a phone call Thursday for comment.

AT&T Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi said AT&T Wireless subscribers were hit with the same alleged campaign from Acacia. But Acacia stopped after it got a warning letter from AT&T Wireless officials, he said.

Blasi said AT&T Wireless has been monitoring the networks to pick out possible wireless spam. About 1.1 million short messages in a month cross the AT&T Wireless network.

Even before wireless spam was a blip on the radar screens of most carriers, the Wireless Advertising Association drafted a set of rules for advertisements sent to cell phones, asking advertisers to get a wireless user's permission first.

And after hearing about one of his own staffers getting spammed on his cell phone, Rush Holt, D-N.J., authored an amendment that he hopes will be added to an existing law about spam to include advertisements sent to cell phones.

Holt said Thursday he has noticed a "steady stream of concerns," about wireless spam.

"It is apparent this could get out of hand as more and more people get (cell) phones," he said.

The amendment that Holt has introduced has been stalled in committee, set aside for greater concerns in Washington, D.C., he said. But it may come in handy because experts expect more complaints in the future, as an increasing number of Americans use cell phones to send each other text messages.

"It's safe to say it will likely increase as more people start using text messaging," in the United States, said Jason Catlett, president of anti-spam group Junkbusters.