by David Lazarus
Nearly 10 billion text messages are sent by U.S. cell phone users every month. If you don't think that's caught the attention of spammers, think again.
One recent study indicates that millions of text-message spams are in circulation already. The majority target younger cell phone users who send the most text messages. But experts say it could be just a matter of time before text spam becomes more widespread.
What's more, many cell phone subscribers face the double whammy of having to pay 10 cents for every text message received, whether read or unread, solicited or unsolicited.
"Spam is a growing concern in the wireless realm," acknowledged Heidi Flato, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless. She said her company filters up to 50,000 spam messages every day before they can reach customers' cell phones.
Palo Alto resident Bill Zaumen is one of numerous wireless customers to see a recent increase in the amount of spam arriving via his cell phone. He told his service provider, Cingular, to block all text messages, which it did.
But the experience got Zaumen thinking.
Why is it, he wondered, that protecting himself is an all-or-nothing proposition? Why does he have to block all text messages, cutting off any legitimate messages that may come his way?
Moreover, Zaumen wondered if the wireless companies aren't accomplices to a crime. Since 2003, federal and state laws have prohibited the sending of unwanted text messages.
"These companies are charging for an illegal activity," Zaumen said. "They're profiting from it. Shouldn't they be more responsible for upholding the law?"
William Baker, a Washington attorney and expert in telecom law, says no.
He said unwanted text messages might be an annoyance, and a costly one at that. But unless consumers are comfortable with having wireless companies read each text message before it arrives, he doesn't see how the carriers can be charged with abetting a crime.
"Legally, their job is to deliver messages," Baker observed. "They deliver them. They've done their job."
However, consumer advocates say the situation isn't so cut-and-dried. Cell-phone companies can do a lot more, they say, to ensure that customers aren't paying through the nose for wireless spam.
"They haven't done very much to make it easier for people to block messages from some sources but allow them from others," said Joe Ridout, a spokesman for Consumer Action in San Francisco.
The reason, he said, is simple: Wireless companies make money from every message sent and every message received.
"They have a profound disincentive to do anything about this problem," Ridout said. "That's why we've seen more foot-dragging than proactive efforts to help customers."
According to CTIA, a wireless industry group, 48.7 billion text messages were sent domestically in the second half of last year -- almost double the amount sent in the corresponding period a year before.
CTIA says there are about 208 million wireless subscribers in the United States, and they send roughly 10 billion text messages each month.
The Pew Research Center found in a separate study last year that 28 percent of people who send text messages are receiving spam -- and being charged in most cases for each unwanted message spilling into their phones.
The Federal Communications Commission prohibits the sending of unwanted "commercial messages" to cell-phone users. The loophole, however, is that the rule doesn't apply to any company with which a consumer has had a prior relationship.
California enacted a similar law in 2003.
"It's a serious enough problem that we're taking steps to make sure it doesn't become more widespread," said Lauren Garner, a Cingular spokeswoman. She declined to elaborate.
A common example of text-message spam occurs when people download new ring tones to their cell phones. Often, the ring tones are accompanied by a blizzard of text messages offering other services, which the consumer might not notice until his or her next phone bill arrives.
Text messages can accompany other cell-phone transactions as well, such as voting for "American Idol" contestants or playing wireless games. One such game was promoted by Verizon recently as part of marketing efforts for the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."
This is legal under federal law. What's illegal is when a marketing company obtains the cell-phone numbers for thousands of customers of any given provider and starts sending out pitches.
"We've been getting more and more complaints about this happening," said Ridout at Consumer Action.
Most wireless companies focus their filtering efforts on known spammers. Customers are typically given the option of blocking messages from specific senders.
This, of course, leaves the door open for other spammers to get through -- at 10 cents a pop for cell-phone customers without costlier plans that accommodate more text messages.
The more consumer-friendly approach would be for all text messages to be blocked except for those from senders given a green light by individual customers -- a "safe list" that could be regularly updated online by the wireless customer.
That way, you're charged only for the messages you send and the ones you want to receive. Everything else falls by the wayside.
Not one major wireless company gives customers this option, although Cingular offers a service that blocks all text messages except those sent to a separate address created by the subscriber.
Laura Marriott, executive director of the Mobile Marketing Association, an industry group, said such a system is unnecessary because of various safeguards already in place, such as spam filters and guidelines for association members that consumers "opt in" before receiving any text messages.
"We have done an extraordinary job as an industry to protect consumers from spam," she said.
But Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America, said the association's efforts won't prevent unscrupulous marketers from obtaining consumers' cell-phone numbers and sending out a torrent of spam.
"Relying on a code of conduct doesn't protect consumers," he said.
Cooper said a safe list of designated text senders would remedy the situation. But he said this is unlikely as long as wireless companies profit from every message that makes its way to customers' cell phones.
"The problem is that the companies would have to administer the safe list," he said. "They're not going to want to administer it."
After all, what's in it for them?
David Lazarus' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Send tips or feedback to email@example.com.
Copyright 2006 San Francisco Chronicle