Text spamming may leave your mobile as full as your email

 

Net Results: Since jumping on the property ladder about two and a half years ago I've found out how annoying the endless supply of junk mail that lands on the mat every morning can become, writes Jamie Smyth.

I've never been a particularly tidy homeowner so the brightly coloured advertisements for cut-price pizza deliveries and dry cleaners tend to pile up.

I take a similar laissez faire attitude to tidying up my email inbox and regularly field panic calls from public relations executives aggrieved that their press release has bounced back from my work email address. Little do they know I'm fighting a losing battle with the legions of spammers, who are using my work and personal email addresses to market everything from cheap life insurance to new jobs and various forms of sexual gratification.

I've tried to block the email marketers by using filters. But, as most readers will probably be aware, this is like trying to stop a rising tide with walls built of sand.

Spam has rendered my hotmail account virtually unusable and the start of each working day is now spent deleting at least five or 10 rogue emails from my work address.

This is frustrating despite The Irish Times's high-speed connection, but for anyone without broadband it must be a hair-tearingly tedious process.

One recent EU study has estimated spamming imposes costs on users for lost productivity of at least €10 billion worldwide every year. So its not just irritating, but expensive too.

The bad news is that spam is now going mobile. Not content with slowing up the internet superhighway, marketing groups plan to bombard mobile networks with millions of text messages offering all sorts of useless products and services.

I got my first spam text message last week telling me I'd won a €325 free stay in one of 30 top hotels across the State.

The promotional offer, which comes courtesy of the Irish firms Red Circle and Realm Communications, sounds too good to be true, and of course it is. After ringing the prize winner's hotline - at €1.90 per minute for a minimum of four minutes - I found out that I would have to pay for dinner and breakfast to claim a single night's accommodation.

Bearing in mind the hefty cost of dining out in the Republic these days, the offer is likely to put a significant dent in the average punter's wallet.

At least 20,000 people have been sent texts promoting the Great Irish Breaks offer in the past eight weeks. The two companies behind the promotion say their campaign has been very successful, accounting for about 80 per cent of the premium rate calls made to the hotline.

This means the premium calls have netted €200,000, not bad going for just eight weeks' work. But there is a question mark over the legality of the text campaign, which the firms deny is spamming.

RegTel, the regulator of premium rate numbers, ordered the firms to stop sending texts last week because people who may not have signed up to receive offers were getting texts. Legal advice given to RegTel suggests this contravenes data protection legislation. But a spokesman for Realm Communications said the company had received advice to the contrary.

What Realm Communications couldn't tell me when I called to find out about my free holiday was just how my number had got on their marketing database?

To my knowledge I've never rung a premium rate number on the basis that my mobile bills are bad enough without costly extras. But the success of the recent hotel break promotion suggests other firms will soon jump on the bandwagon.

In Britain, where mobile spamming has become a big problem over the past two years, the regulator of premium rate numbers has pulled the plug on 50 firms accused of spamming and confiscated their revenues.

Yet despite the efforts of the regulator, the number of complaints is growing from 150 in 2001 to a massive 3,500 in the first six months of this year. Even the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, was targeted last year when thousands of mobile users received the message: "Hi mate, phone me ASAP, crap signal in this pub. If I don't answer, ask for Tony who runs this place." The number that accompanied the spoof message led to Downing Street's communication system, which was almost crippled by the volume of calls.

In Japan, where the mobile phone culture is more developed than our own, some reports suggest that nine out of 10 text messages are spam. And the growth of multimedia messaging will provide an even richer medium to boost the marketer's finances.

RegTel plans to introduce a new code of practice for the premium rate market in the autumn, which would outlaw spamming mobile users. The code is likely to stipulate that only users who chose to opt in for promotions should receive texts from firms.

But identifying what exactly counts as opting in could provide a legal grey area which spammers love to occupy. For example if I make a call to one premium number does that mean I will receive texts on every promotion a firm decides to run? And does giving a mobile phone number on a form to an insurance or finance firm give it the right to bombard you with offers?

New EU proposals due to be transposed into Irish law this year by Minister for Communications Mr Dermot Ahern, are intended to get tough on all unsolicited texts and emails. But with huge profits possible through text marketing, it is possible the regulations will fall short.

Likewise, there has been little attempt by the mobile phone networks - which benefit from the revenue created by texts - to crack down on spamming.

Perhaps one of the downsides to the era of technological convergence will be a permanently "spammed out" mobile that can seamlessly communicate with a "spammed out" e-mail inbox.

If that happens it may be time to trade in the palm pilot and mobile and get back to a trusty old pen and paper.