ACMA 1 Phone spammers 0

ACMAIn Australia, offences against the Spam Act are enforced not by the State or Territory police forces, but by a federal body called ACMA — the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

And on Friday, 23 October 2009, ACMA had something to get excited about, when the Federal Court in Brisbane agreed that two companies and three individuals should collectively be fined a whopping AU$15,750,000 (that’s just a fraction under nine million of your British pounds!) for SMS-related spamming offences.

Spam Act short form

Despite the severity of the punishment, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the offenders when reading the allegations as presented by ACMA, namely that “the respondents were engaged in a complicated scheme to obtain mobile phone numbers from members of dating websites, using fake member profiles, in order to send commercial electronic messages by SMS”.

The court accepted ACMA’s arguments that:

  • after the numbers were obtained, unsolicited messages were sent to the mobile phone numbers offering the opportunity to chat via SMS using services described as the ‘Safe Divert’ or ‘Maybemeet’ services;
  • the chat was not offered by genuine members of dating websites but employees of the respondents’ companies;
  • consumers were charged up to five dollars per message; and
  • when users questioned whether the messages were from a real person, they were told that it was a real person who was using the “Safe Divert” service to keep their mobile phone number private.

ACMA claims that the scheme generated more than AU$2 million, so the fines imposed recover not only the proceeds of the offence, but will also, one hopes, have both a punitive and a deterrent effect.

Interestingly, just a week before this judgment, ACMA called for public feedback on its proposed new rules for blocking unwanted high-cost services delivered via SMS. It’s hard not to feel some outrage against the mobile phone companies for apparently so willingly accepting their share of the revenue from ultra-expensive SMS message services — especially in the abovementioned case, which was, in ACMA’s opinion, “particularly malicious and deceitful as it deliberately and systematically preyed upon vulnerable people, offering false hope and expectations”.

Ironically, the window for feedback to ACMA on the control of unwanted mobile premium SMS ended at 17:00 last Friday, the very same day as the court victory up in Queensland.

With this in mind, I’d like to urge ACMA to extend the deadline and allow further time for people to give their feedback. The nature of the deception in the abovementioned case, and the amount of money made by the respondents, ought to be enough to encourage many more consumers to weigh in with their opinion.

Prevention of consumer abuse through SMS-oriented spam will always be better than cure. And prevention will surely be improved through a system which enforces:

  • greater consumer protection against unscrupulous mobile premium services;
  • greater pressure on the mobile phone operators to show some kind of consumer-centric discrimination in the premium services with which they choose to do business; and
  • better default security settings to prevent the young and vulnerable signing up to services which cost way more than they are worth (and which often quietly commit the user to open-ended contractual subscriptions which allow charges to be gouged indefinitely).

If ACMA does extend its deadline, please consider responding.