How to stop spam text messages

18 January 2017

You may be familiar with email spam: it’s the online equivalent of junk mail, with the added danger of being a tool used by scammers and fraudsters to infect your computer with harmful software. Now that SMS has become a primary means of text-based communication, spammers are turning their attentions to text messaging as a means of harassing unwitting phone owners.

Spam SMS are unwanted text messages that are usually either someone promoting a product or service, or someone attempting to scam others into providing personal information. If you’ve received a message that doesn’t identify the sender, you did not consent to receiving, or makes an offer that’s too good to be true, it’s likely to be spam.

However, not all text advertising is ‘spam’ – many people subscribe to legitimate SMS services, known as Premium SMS. It's still possible to subscribe these services inadvertently, which is why we'll include them below.

How to Spot Spam SMS

Spam refers to messages that are unsolicited, unwanted and usually cost the recipient money. Spam is usually sent automatically and in bulk, often to randomly chosen or generated phone numbers. These sort of messages can come in many forms – often you’ll be asked to respond to an email address or phone number that doesn’t correspond with the supposed identity of the sender.

Spam schemes will normally work in one of two ways. Either a user will respond and be charged for every text message received (and sometimes sent), in a way similar to how premium SMS services work. Or, the spam texts are the initial stages of an outright scam, in which the senders are hoping to gain personal information by fraudulent means -- usually posing as a bank or online payment company.

The important thing when receiving texts you believe may be a scam is to not reply. Don’t provide any personal details or show any interest in what the spammer is requesting or promoting.

However, we recommend not deleting any unwanted texts automatically, as you may need to refer to them later if you continue to receive messages and need to take further action.

Stopping the spam

If you continue to receive spam SMS even though you haven’t responded, you can take the following steps:

  • If you’re able to contact whoever is sending you the texts to request stopping them, do so first. However, most spam senders won’t give you contact information in their texts, and won’t be searchable by number.
  • Your next step is bringing the situation to the attention of your mobile service provider. The aim here is stop the texts, and also reverse any charges that may have been incurred by you receiving them or attempting to have the messages stopped.
  • If the problem remains unresolved after talking to your telco, you can contact the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman for further assistance.
  • You can also alert the Australian Communications and Media Authority about the sender, You can forward spam texts directly to the ACMA at 0429999888 (texts will cost the standard SMS rate). You’ll receive an acknowledgement SMS in reply once ACMA receives the forwarded text, along with a reference number if you wish to make further inquiries or complaints.
  • The ACMA will then investigate the source and record the text details in its database.
  • Contacting the ACMA won’t automatically stop the unwanted messages, but it will help with investigations that may lead to the spammer being shut down.
  • The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission would like all unsolicited messages to be reported to its ‘SCAMwatch’ service, even if it appears to be legitimate promotional content. You can do so by visiting the SCAMwatch website, or calling 1300 795 995.

Blocking a number

If you want to stop messages or calls from a certain number, this is another viable alternative, at least, provided the spam is continuously coming from the same source.

On iPhone, you can do the following:

  • Open the Messages app, open the conversation in question.
  • Tap the "i" icon in the top right hand corner, then tap the name or phone number
  • Scroll down to the bottom of the screen, and select "block this caller".
  • This will also prevent phone calls from that number. When you block a phone number or contact on iPhone, they can still leave voicemail, but you won't get a notification. The contact won't get a notification that the call or message was blocked.

On Android, the process is similar:

  • Open your message app, and open the conversation in question.
  • Tap the More icon, typically represented by three vertical dots.
  • From here, the exact steps vary from Android manufacturer to manufacturer. You might have an option to block the contact immediately, or you might need to dig further down into settings. Look for something along the lines of "People & Options".

Premium SMS services

In Australia, commercial electronic messages can only be sent with the consent of the recipient. SMS services/ premium SMS services, designated by numbers starting with '19', are usually subscription services that deliver entertainment and information to your mobile phone. These cost a much higher price that you would normally pay to send and receive texts.

Even if you are on a plan including unlimited SMS messages, Premium SMS services will cost you extra.

Examples of these services include mobile ringtones or wallpaper delivered to your phone, competitions, horoscopes, and directory services. Using your phone to SMS your vote on the result of a reality TV show, for example, is usually charged at a premium rate for each text you send.

The difference between legitimate premium services and spam is that generally, recipients opt-in to the premium services by calling or sending an SMS to the content provider, and the texts can be easily stopped once a user has decided they no longer want the service. You need to give your consent, either by responding to a confirmation SMS, or answering a voice prompt sent to your mobile.

Premium services have been given a bad rep, due to people not realising they’re actually signing up to a subscription service before giving consent (and not realising that they’re paying through the nose for every text received). Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to opt out of a premium service – users need to simply text ‘STOP’ to the 19 number sending the texts. Failing that, you can search the content provider at 19 SMS and contact them directly.

For the overwhelming majority of users, that’s all they’ll need to do to remove themselves from a service’s subscriber base. But there are some shady companies who’ll continue to send texts or initiate services without a customer’s consent – and that’s where spam comes in. If this happens you to, follow the steps outlined above.

Most of us will delete a too-good-to-be-true offer along those lines immediately, but spammers count on one or two individuals gullible enough to respond with their personal details.

SMS Spam image via Shutterstock

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