Taking aim at wireless spam

As a House Commerce Committee votes on an anti-spam bill, a second such bill is on the way and a class-action lawsuit is gathering steam in Phoenix.

4 min read
WASHINGTON--At first, Rodney Joffe figured the ad he had just received on his AT&T Wireless phone was a mistake.

But Joffe, a resident of Arizona, later was hit with another message from the same Phoenix-based mortgage company. As AT&T charges customers for every text message, or SMS (short message service) they receive, these unwanted messages were costing him money.

"I'm not just going to let this die," said Joffe, a veteran technologist who was a founder of network operator Genuity. He now runs CenterGate Research Group, a for-profit think tank and technology incubator, while he's also rounding up other spam victims in Phoenix and talking to lawyers about a class-action suit.

He isn't the only one taking aim at the wireless spammers. The first battle on this new front may not be in the Phoenix courts, but rather in Congress.

On Wednesday, the House Commerce Committee will vote on an anti-spam bill authored by Reps. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and Gene Green, D-Tex. That bill easily passed the Telecommunications Subcommittee on March 21.

The practice of spamming--or sending unsolicited e-mails--has become a hot issue for politicians as the Internet has grown. Anti-spam legislation, however, has yet to become law, falling short in the Senate after it passed the House last year. A new effort is underway in the House.

A second bill to block wireless spam, introduced by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., in January, is also moving through the halls of Congress. Until now, it had received little attention.

The spamming in Phoenix, however, "certainly gave Holt's wireless bill a boost," said privacy advocate Ray Everett-Church, founder of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE).

Simple to send
Although carriers have means to block junk mail, spamming has not until now been seen as a big problem, so few serious measures have been taken.

It's a relatively simple act to spam hundreds of wireless phone users at once. Many carriers use the approach that AT&T does to assign a customer's SMS address: phone-number@name-of-carrier.com. Wireless companies get their phone numbers in blocks with the same prefix, so someone who knows one phone number can e-mail 10,000 names by cycling from 0000 to 9999 after the prefix.

What makes wireless text-messaging spam more difficult to track than traditional junk mail is that when the message travels off the Internet and is converted to SMS code by the wireless carrier, the header of the e-mail is stripped away. There's no way to tell what Internet service provider the spam came from. Thus, there's no way to notify the ISP to ask it to go after the spammer.

AT&T Wireless says it is familiar with the SMS spam in Phoenix. The company is "looking to see what we can do to benefit all of our customers," said spokesman Rich Blasi.

"We do have filters in place that normally catch this stuff," said Blasi, adding that this was the first SMS spam attack he had heard of. AT&T is increasing its filtering to try to prevent future problems, he said, and the company also has a policy of contacting the spammer and asking them to cease.

Joffe says when he complained to AT&T, they offered to give him a new phone number.

"That's a completely unacceptable response," Everett-Church said.

But changing a phone number, Blasi said, "can be an immediate recourse" for a subscriber.

Minding the phones
The prevailing sentiment about Holt's bill had been that it probably was not necessary because everyone "had counted on carriers having an interest in keeping their systems from being hijacked" by spam, Everett-Church said. Carriers should be concerned because SMS revenues are based on use, and if consumers are flooded with junk mail, they will turn off the SMS receivers on their phones, he said.

For the moment, Holt's focus has been on the president's tax bill because the representative sits on the House Budget Committee, but he is looking into the wireless spamming in Phoenix, according to a spokesman.

A class-action suit, Joffe said, likely would hinge on the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which outlaws calls to a number, including a cellular one, when the recipient has to pay for a call received without the recipient's authorization.

Everett-Church noted the law is more than 10 years old, however--an eternity in modern-day telecommunications.

"It was written without the contemplation of SMS," Everett-Church said. As a result, Holt's bill is "a very logical extension" of TCPA.

A number of carriers charge for SMS messages, but the approaches vary, with some plans offering a bucket of free SMS messages before incurring a per-message charge. Thus, the cost of wireless spam would vary significantly among consumers, Everett-Church said.

In the meantime, Joffe is seeking out lawyers and has contacted the Arizona attorney general. In the talks he's had with people in Phoenix, he estimates spam was also sent to users of Verizon Wireless and Nextel Communications, at a minimum. At least 17 prefixes have been used, he said, "which is 170,000 potential recipients."

"The war is on," Joffe said. "I will not give up on this one."