Spam Familiar In E-Mail, Now Flooding Your Phone

Spam text messaging is on the rise — it's estimated that American cell phone owners received billions of spam texts last year. And they're not just annoying, they can be costly, too. Host Michel Martin speaks with telecommunications expert Ben Levitan about what consumers and cell phone providers can do to prevent spam text messages.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now to matters of personal finance, and today we're going to talk about something that is probably already driving you crazy - those spam text messages that are clogging up your inbox. They offer you a free iPad, or trip, or $1,000 gift card or compensation for side effects from some drug you never heard of but they're often costing you money and certainly wasting your time and getting on your nerves.

Now if this is you, you're not alone. There are reports that spam text messages are rising into the billions right now. We wanted to know more about this and what, if anything, can be done to stop it, so we've called upon Ben Levitan. He is a telecommunications expert who has broad experience with mobile devices. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

BEN LEVITAN: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Could you tell us, first, what is the point of these messages? Does anybody ever actually get a free iPad?

LEVITAN: No, but people make a fortune on this stuff, Michel. This is one of the biggest scams going.

MARTIN: How does this scam work, though? How is there money to be made sending these ridiculous messages?

LEVITAN: Well, cell phone companies allow businesses and charities to set up businesses very quickly. You can very easily go to any cell phone company's website and say I want to be a vendor and I want to set up a quick mobile phone business. And once you're all set up, every time someone presses your star code and makes a purchase from you, the cell phone company makes a little bit of money and you make the rest of the money.

Now, that's the legitimate part of this. Remember during Katrina, we knew the people down there really needed some help, so you could hit a short code like 4567 SEND and that would automatically donate $10 to the Katrina relief fund. Well, the illegitimate part of this is people setting up fake businesses and fake charities, and then sending you spam messages and getting you to click on those links.

And then they don't find out about this for 30 days or if they ever find out about it. And by the time you get around to complaining about this, the company's shut itself down and they're gone.

MARTIN: So the whole point is to get you to respond to the message.

LEVITAN: Yeah, absolutely. If you will click on their link or dial a short code, these guys will go to the extent of taking advantages of disasters in your town. Suppose tomorrow there was a big apartment fire and 200 families were all of a sudden out of their houses and your city started a relief fund. Or you heard an ad on the radio: these poor people are out. Please donate $10 by pushing 4567. You will be helping your community.

Of course, the radio station sold the ad to someone they thought was a legitimate business, but this was just a scammer. These guys will collect $100,000 in a matter of a couple of days.

MARTIN: And then go away. Well, even those ones that say, text me back "stop" if you want these messages to stop, that's even part of the scam too?

LEVITAN: That's absolutely part of the scam. The cell phone company sets this up as a legitimate business. They had no expectation this was going to happen. And they have certain rules that, of course, if you're a criminal you don't care. And, yes, if you hit stop, supposedly they're supposed to stop sending you that text. It doesn't work.

MARTIN: It doesn't work. So what does work? Is there anything you can do?

LEVITAN: If you have not set up your online account, that's the number one way you're going to get scammed. Set up your online account or a criminal's going to do that. And once they set up your online account they can buy things, and they can sign up for these. That's the number one thing to do.

Second thing to do is if you see a link, put your mouse or your cursor over it before you click anything. Generally, and this works for computers as well as cell phones, in the lower left-hand corner you're going to see what website you're actually going to click.

So if someone sends you a link that says, hey, go to this NPR article, and you slide your mouse over that link and you get this little message in the lower left-hand corner that it's going to some website in China, don't click on it. And then third of all, watch your account very carefully. If you catch these things within a couple of days, you can call 611 and tell the phone company, hey, I got signed up for something I didn't want.

Can you take it off my bill? Yes. They will stop it immediately. But if you wait 30 days they've already paid the scammer and they can't refund you. They'll also shut down that business, because if you call in and other people call in, they'll shut that down immediately.

MARTIN: What about complaining to the FTC? They have an online form for that, for reporting spam text messages, but does that do any good?

LEVITAN: It does a lot of good but believe me, usually that's for complaints against phone companies. The phone companies want to stop this as much as you do, because this is intended to be a legitimate way to make small payments. They don't want it. They're doing everything they can to build up virus protection, spam protection, and assure that only legitimate businesses can set up.

You could complain to the FCC. Some of these businesses are in China. Some of them are in Cleveland. There's no way of knowing where they come from. They're all over the place.

MARTIN: Ben Levitan is a telecommunications expert and he was nice enough to join us from his home in North Carolina. Ben, thank you.

LEVITAN: Thank you, Michel. Great to be on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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