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Spam leaves phone users speechless

Updated: 2011-04-11 06:41
By Duan Yan and Cao Li ( China Daily)

Unsolicited messages may also come at a high cost, report Duan Yan and Cao Li in Beijing.

Beijing businessman Tian Dong bought a BMW 5 Series vehicle for his company in 2009 and the following day his mobile phone was inundated by spam.

Tian has received dozens of spam messages every day since then, advertising products from fake fapiao (tax invoices) to secondhand cars. "Sometimes these messages wake me up after midnight."

Spam leaves phone users speechless
A woman in Beijing shows spam messages on her mobile phone. Wang Jing / China Daily

Tian was spammed again three months later after he bought an apartment, this time with messages about renovation.

The unsolicited messages are a nuisance shared by China's 878 million mobile phone users. According to 12321.com, an anti-spam center and hotline run by the China Internet Society, spammers distributed an average of 11.4 junk messages a week to each mobile phone user in the second half of 2010.

Spam leaves phone users speechless

Run-of-the-mill spam is annoying but fraud-connected spam is also costly for mobile phone users. In five regions, including Shanghai and Fujian and Guangdong provinces, fraud cost phone users more than 1 billion yuan ($153 million) in 2009.

In a news conference on Thursday, the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate announced their interpretation of several issues in the application of law concerning fraud. Sending 5,000 fraudulent text messages will be prosecuted as fraud and is subject to harsher penalties, they said.

The government began to clamp down on spamming about three years ago, with the most recent development an unprecedented conviction in Beijing. The city's Xicheng District People's Court found four people guilty of illegally sending millions of spam messages to mobile phone users as part of a business without a license.

That case was concluded on March 29 and another, involving business of a larger scale, is being tried in Beijing's Chaoyang district court. And more are coming, according to the court.

Despite the prosecutions, legal experts doubt that jailing illegal spammers will relieve phone users of the harassment because spamming to phones - with or without a license - is easy, costs little and provides a high profit margin.

Easy money

In about six months, the four men convicted in Beijing made more than 100,000 yuan ($15,300) from their spamming business. All they needed were a few computers, dozens of cell phone cards and a few pieces of equipment for group messaging to transmit millions of messages every day.

The equipment can be easily found at electronics markets or online, costing a hundred to a few thousand yuan.

Beijing Boda Technology Center, a company that sells such gear, offers equipment for 6,000 yuan that can use 32 phone cards to send messages simultaneously, said a salesman who answered the phone but did not give his name. Each phone card, costing 25 yuan, can send 700 messages within one hour.

The salesman did the math: "With one piece of equipment, it only costs you 800 yuan to buy phone cards to send 22,400 text messages within an hour. It costs about 0.03 yuan to send one message.

"Many property developers have bought more than 20 such pieces of equipment from us to send advertisements to potential buyers. You can also help other companies to send messages," he said. "You can charge them 0.04 to 0.05 yuan (per message), the standard market price. For each message you send, you can make 0.01 yuan out of it."

The salesman, well aware of the case of the jailed spam-senders, remained unworried. "As long as you are not sending fraud messages or selling illegal weapons and pornography, you will be fine."

Spam leaves phone users speechless
Spam leaves phone users speechless

Nobody complained

Monitoring and screening services are available for spam messages, but spammers can get around them easily by changing phone cards, according to Su Xin, deputy director of Wireless Communication Technology R&D Center with Tsinghua University. That makes investigating and punishing illegal activity difficult, Su said.

Authorities in South China's Guangdong province blocked text messaging services on 900,000 mobile phone numbers in 2009 because users had sent large amounts of illegal, junk messages. Were there real customers behind those numbers?

"No subscribers applied to restore the text messaging service for their phone numbers during a 90-day complaint period," said Yang Yuncai, director of the Network and Information Security Department under the Guangdong Provincial Communications Administration.

A new national law requires buyers to present identification to purchase phone cards, but it is not implemented strictly, Su said.

Zhang Yan, the judge in the case of the four spammers, told China Daily that businesses have the responsibility to check the license of message operators but most do not.

In her court case, businesses that bought the advertisements ranged from property development to educational services. Zhang stressed that the jailed spam senders did not send messages involving fraud or illegal products, such as fake tax invoices.

Private info for sale

Businesses are fond of advertising via text messages because it is cheap, said Yu Guofu, partner with Beijing Shengfeng Law Firm. And it is easy for businesses to take advantage of the lack of clear privacy protection laws in the industry.

Legalizing spam also is not difficult. Agencies in Beijing charge around 12,000 yuan to help companies apply for a legal license as a service provider to send text messages legally. The licenses are granted by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and local communications administrations.

In 2008, the annual "315 Evening Gala" consumer watchdog program on China Central Television reported that a general manager of Focus Media Wireless boasted to a reporter that the company possessed the names, addresses and phone numbers of more than 200 million mobile phone users in China.

The remark infuriated the Chinese public as many realized their private information might have been intentionally leaked or even sold without their consent. The TV show led to a crackdown on spamming by many service providers that own licenses. And Focus Media shut down its mobile texting business.

And volume discounts

Two years after buying the BMW, businessman Tian Dong's cell phone number - plus the number of his car plate and registered company address - can be easily obtained from online vendors at a cheap price.

A vendor who gave only his surname, Yang, said he has personal information for 150,000 Beijing car owners, including Tian. "If you have valuable contact information, I can pay you a good price for it," Yang said.

In turn, he sells each entry for 0.06 yuan, but he offers a discount to volume buyers. "If you want to purchase 150,000 car owners' numbers, I can give it to you for 3,800 yuan." The full price would be 9,000.

Yang's company website, www.lone88.com, also offers personal information on golf club members, bank VIP clients and students - mostly supervisors and managers - who are working on an executive master of business administration degree.

Calls for action

"Obtaining a license means you are allowed to send spam messages but does not necessarily mean that you have obtained permission from every phone user," said Zhang, the judge.

She said police monitored a dramatic decline in spam texts the first day of the trial in her court, but experts believe the government's clampdown is not enough to solve the problem.

"We need a long-term and systematic method to curb the spam," said Wang Yongjie, deputy dean of the law school at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai. Wang said half the text messages he receives every day are spam.

Yu, the lawyer, thinks all spam texts should be banned, with or without a license. "Disturbing the phone users' right to peace is against civil laws." But laws should be updated to clearly address the issue, Yu said.

In addition, the experts said the three wireless telecom carriers in China should take primary responsibility and establish better monitoring and screening systems. Spokesmen for the carriers, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, declined China Daily's interview requests.

Currently, mobile phone users who are irritated by spam texts can file complaints with their carriers by forwarding the spam to a service number and the carriers will track the originating number and how many messages it sends. But most users don't bother. And those who do can expect no feedback about the investigation, according to China Mobile's service line.

Another spam reporting hotline, 12321, is affiliated with China Internet Society, but complaint phone calls did not get through to any operator after several tries on a weekday afternoon last week.

Experts say technology can also be improved to solve the problems. Su, who is with the university wireless technology center, believes that current systems may screen only 60 percent of spam messages but an easy upgrade could make it 90 percent effective. The difference would come from monitoring for key words and the number of messages sent from one phone number in a short time.

"The carriers need to step up efforts on monitoring as well," Su said.

Lawyers Yu and Wang noted that the carriers make money from the text message services they provide. However, Wang appealed to both carriers and authorities to work together to monitor spam.

Wu Dong, a partner with Shanghai-based M&A Law Firm, believes laws should be updated to ensure effective monitoring. And they should tell people that sending spam messages could be a crime.

One of the four defendants in the Beijing spamming trial argued to the court that he didn't send any text message with illegal or pornographic content so he did not think it was illegal.


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