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UK Watchdog bites mobile spam scammers

Two operations shut down under emergency procedures

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The UK's Premium rate call watchdog ICSTIS invoked its emergency procedures yesterday to shut down two scam operations which had generated hundreds of consumer complaints.

One of the companies closed, Vertical Media, used a phone message to direct callers to its premium lines. Quartel3, also known as Greenbay, had live operators posing as customer service agents redirecting the suckered parties.

Both cases involved so-called missed call marketing, in which the scammer calls a phone once, leaving a missed call message. Then, if phone owner rings that number, he or she is directed to call a premium rate line to claim a free holiday, cash prize or similar.

The Independent Commission for the Supervision of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS) will normally instigate a thorough investigation before taking any action, but it can shut down the offending lines immediately if it sees a blatant breach of its code of conduct which seriously harms consumers.

Richard Sullivan, an ICSTIS spokesman, said that scam operators had to work harder to get around the system now, following a recent crackdown on text spam. He argued that text-spam is self limiting, irritating as it is: "Texts aren’t free, so it is easier to keep a lid on. The missed call scam is actually much more serious. If it isn’t watched carefully, it is a good way of making a lot of money. We won’t be resting on our laurels."

ICSTIS this week also issued an adjudication against ACME Marketing, which sent unsolicited texts inviting people to call a premium number to claim a free holiday. Callers were given the cost per minute information only after seven minutes into the call, by which time they had already run up an £11 bill. The company was fined £3000 and instructed to offer redress to all complainants. Access to the service was barred for six months.

Despite all this activity, the global picture is not rosy. The GSM Association lists spam as one of the four top threats to the future of the mobile industry. ICSTIS receives more than 10,000 complaints about mobile spam last year, and operators are seeing an increase in the burden on customer services, as more people call to complain.

According to a study into mobile spam conducted by Empower Interactive, 80 per cent of European mobile operators agree that spam poses a serious threat. However, only a fifth has put any kind of consumer protection in place, and a further third has no plans to do so.

The study found that 65 per cent of mobile users receive around five spam messages per week. Worryingly, 45 per cent of the operators surveyed felt this was an acceptable level. ®

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