Handful of Spam

Wireless operators can't easily control rogue messages

Spam is going mobile.

Phoenix resident Rodney Joffe is hoping to launch a class action suit against a local company, Acacia National Mortgage, that allegedly sent two advertisements to his cell phone. According to Joffe, a consumer protection act passed in the early 90s outlaws the practice because the message is unsolicited and he has to pay to receive it.

Today, cell phone spam is a small problem because few companies send such advertisements, but it could blossom. "If unmanaged, this issue will become a big burden within 12 months," predicted Delly Tamer, CEO of LetsTalk.com, a company that recommends mobile services for enterprises.

Tamer envisions a company with 3,000 employees with cell phones. If each employee gets one spam message per day and each message costs 10 cents, the company could end up paying more than $100,000 per year for those messages. Cost per message varies from 2 cents to 25 cents, depending on the service provider, and often several hundred messages are included in monthly pricing packages.

While providers dont condone the sending of unsolicited messages, theres little they can do to control it. Anyone can send text messages using open gateways. Operators can set up rules that could, for example, block senders that issue bulk messages, said Chris Knotts, director of marketing at TeleCommunications Systems, which offers messaging platforms. "But it could be legitimate people sending out sports scores or stock quotes. Thats the problem," he said. End users may have asked for those messages.

Sprint PCS has agreements with content providers and knows which sources are generating mass amounts of messages at given times. When a large block of messages hits Sprint PCS network, the messages are flagged so a network manager can check the source. If it doesnt match with a content partner or if it exceeds the expected number of messages, Sprint PCS can contact the source and decide to block it.

In Joffes case, AT&T Wireless, his service provider, didnt have any real solutions to stopping the spam. The company offered to change his phone number. "Thats not much good, because theyre sending to every phone number," he said. The operator then offered to turn off Joffes text messaging service, but he wants it for communication.

Acacia officials did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Sprint PCS allows customers to block messages from individual sources. But that could mean a lot of work for end users if the volume of unwanted messages increases.

Regulators are working on making it harder for companies to send wireless spam. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., has introduced a bill designed to prevent it. Violators would be subject to fines of $500 or more.