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
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
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: email@example.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
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
Joffe says when he complained to AT&T, they offered to give him a new phone
"That's a completely unacceptable response," Everett-Church said.
But changing a phone number, Blasi said, "can be an immediate recourse" for
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
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."