The premium text message scam

I’m writing up this blog entry to let people know about my experience with unwanted premium text messages, and the fact that the mobile operators appear unwilling to do anything about this issue, quite possibly because they profit from it while their subscribers get hit with unwanted charges.

It started in August last year, when I received a puzzling text message out of the blue. “To access your latest AllSports Tipsters betting tips, visit our site at [link]”. The sender was listed as just a five digit number. Well, I occasionally receive spam text messages trying to trick the receiver into clicking on a web link or fool you into thinking it is an urgent communique from HMRC and so on, so I just ignored it.

When my next mobile phone bill arrived, I noticed that it was more than the amount that I would normally pay each month, and perusing the itemised list showed that I had been charged £4.50 for a “premium message”. It didn’t take me long to match the date to the mystery text message, but I was dumbfounded. The phone company was charging me for receiving a message? What was going on?

I wasn’t really even sure of what a “premium message” was, so I googled it. This is the definition I found on the Which? website:

Also known as ‘reverse billed’ messages, premium rate text (SMS) messages come from four, five or six-digit numbers and are normally for subscription services such as games or weather updates.

It went on to explain that

SMS text messages of this kind can only be sent out if you sign up to the service

But of course, I hadn’t signed up to the service – I had never even heard of the company before that message popped up on my phone.

I decided to take the matter up with my mobile operator, since it was this company that was actually billing me for the message. I won’t reveal which operator it is, but suffice to say it is one of the big four, which owns its own network infrastructure and thus has total control over anything that traverses its network.

The operator in question has an online chat facility on its website that enables customers to talk to helpdesk staff, so I started here. I explained the problem, but the response from the helpdesk guy was something like “Oh, that’s just messages you will have signed up to receive.” I explained that I had in fact never signed up to receive any messages from any service, but the helpdesk chap was adamant that I “must have” signed up to receive them, and to take it up with the company sending the messages.

But, I had no idea which company was actually sending the messages; all I had to go on was the five digit number, or shortcode that it was associated with. The helpdesk chap then contradicted himself and said that was OK, the mobile operator could contact that company on my behalf and stop the messages.

What about the money I had been charged for receiving an unwanted message? Would I get that back, I inquired. There was a pause. “As you have been such a loyal and valued customer, we are prepared to refund you the cost of the message in this case,” was the reply, after the guy had presumably copied and pasted it out of a list of ready prepared statements.

The helpdesk guy also suggested I should text a reply back to the shortcode sender saying “STOP”, which I duly did.

Shortly afterwards, I received a text message from the phone company telling me that I would receive a refund. “That wasn’t too much trouble,” I thought.

Sadly, my satisfaction didn’t last long. A few weeks later, another premium message, identical to the first, pinged into the messages box on my phone. When my next bill arrived, I was annoyed to see that not only had I been charged another £4.50 for receiving a totally pointless message, but that the cost of the original message had not been refunded, despite the text confirmation from the phone company stating this would happen.

Back to my mobile operator, only to find that the chat service was offline, so I had to call them up and sit in the hold queue. I explained the situation all over again, and was once again assured by a helpdesk operative that I “must have” signed up to receive these messages, as it was “impossible” for me to be receiving them otherwise.

Here’s a tip that I learned: ask to speak to the complaints department, because the people there seem to be more clued up and more motivated to solve your problem than the grunts staffing the frontline helpdesk.

The chap from the complaints department admitted that this was a problem his company was aware of, but still claimed that it was unable to do anything about it. This is an absurd assertion for a company that owns and has full control over its own network. It’s like an IT admin claiming that there is nothing he or she can do to control which resources users have access to.

The best that he could do, he claimed, was to put a cap on the charges for my account, so that I could not be charged any more than the monthly amount specified in my contract. This I instructed him to do, and also mentioned that I had not received the refund I had previously been promised. He told me that I would receive a full refund for the unwanted messages in my next bill.

I also texted “STOP” back to the number sending me the messages, just in case.

A week or two later, I received another of the premium messages, identical to the first one. “Ha ha,” I thought, “are they going to get a shock when they try to collect the money for that!”

Alas, what happened is that the refund for the previous messages was deducted from the amount that I owed on the next bill, which meant that the total was lower than the cap level. I was thus charged yet again for receiving a premium message.

I realised I was now in a sort of Catch-22 situation, where every time I complained about being hit with a charge for an unwanted message, the phone company would refund the money, but the very act of doing this would mean that the scammers would be able to hit me with  a charge again!

In frustration, I searched around on Google for a solution, and found the Phone-paid Services Authority website, which allows anyone to find out information about a service provider by keying in the shortcode number associated with it. This elicited the name of the company responsible for the messages and an email address. I sent them a terse email asking them to stop sending any messages to my mobile number, and finally, the messages ceased.

The moral of the story is that if you fall victim to this premium text message scam, don’t bother contacting your mobile phone company – they will do nothing to stop the messages, and will claim that they are unable to do anything about them. This is a preposterous notion, since it implies that they do not have control over their own network and billing system.

What it means is that the mobile operators have built a service that is ripe for abuse by any unscrupulous company that chooses to send premium rate messages to mobile subscribers – effectively helping themselves to a customer’s money – and are not prepared to do anything to address this situation.

Instead, if the sender refuses to act on you sending “STOP” back to them, then go direct to the Phone-paid Services Authority and find contact details for the company sending the texts, and contact them directly – their website also lets you report abuses. However, there is no guarantee that this will stop the abuse. When will our hapless regulators close this loophole that seems to allow unscrupulous companies to take money from UK consumers for almost literally nothing?