They are unwanted messages on what might be an unwanted service, but you may get stuck paying for them anyway. And depending on your carrier, it might not be possible to opt out of text message spam.
After years of trying, spammers have finally figured out how to crash the text message party. Cell phone text spam is much, much worse than e-mail spam, junk mail, or even telemarketing calls for one simple reason: Recipients have to pay for it.
Perhaps you were among the thousands of cell phone users hit with spam text messages late last month. Starting around Aug. 20, a message hawking stock in tiny Fredericks Entertainment landed on cell phones provided by many carriers. If you read Herb Weisbaum's ConsumerMan column last week, you know that victims of this widespread attack must call their carrier to seek a refund or credit.
There's something else you might consider to prevent future cell phone spam: If you aren't the type to type into a mobile handset, perhaps you'd prefer turning off your text message service. That would be the ultimate spam filter, and certainly a logical solution to the problem.
Not so fast. Some carriers say they can't disable text messaging.
Shelly Ng of Illinois, who says she was recently hit by text spam, was shocked when her seemingly simple request was rejected by a T-Mobile customer service representative.
"I asked them to turn off my texting capability because I don't text. They refused, claiming that their technology does not allow them to do so," Ng said.
Even worse, the agent then tried to sell her on a text message plan for $4.95 per month. "I got so mad," she said.
Ultimately, T-Mobile gave her 15 free messages as a credit toward future spam. But the basic problem remains: Ultimately, Ng will again be charged 15 cents apiece for messages she doesn't want.
David Henderson, a T-Mobile spokesman, confirmed that T-Mobile users cannot turn off texting for technical reasons.
"The text messaging feature on your account is actually a mandatory feature and cannot be removed," he said. "This feature is needed because it's where voice mail and billing notifications are delivered."
Henderson said the problem of text spam is minimal because T-Mobile uses sophisticated spam software and allows consumers to add their own text filters on T-Mobile's Web site. The recent Fredericks spam, for example, didn't reach T-Mobile customers, he said.
Other carrier policies
Verizon customers can't turn off texting either, but spokesman Jeff Nelson said they can do the next best thing: They can shut off text messages sent from e-mail or Web browsers. After that's done, only cell-phone-to-cell-phone texting is possible, and it's nearly impossible to run a spam campaign because spammers need automated tools and e-mail programs to send thousands of messages at a time, he said.
Still, the company is considering going the extra step and letting customers shut off texting altogether, he said.
"We are looking at that possibility," Nelson said.
Verizon users can call customer service or visit any store for instructions on how to cut off certain kinds of text messages.
Sprint's policy is simpler: Users can call customer service and turn off texting, said spokeswoman Emmy Anderson. They also can use the company's Web site to restrict text messages from individual numbers, though that would do little to prevent spam.
Susan Bean at AT&T (formerly Cingular) said its customers can also shut off texting, but the company doesn't recommend it.
"If you have a customer that really doesn't text, that would be a solution," she said. "But most people don't want to turn off text messaging ... so we have a lot better alternatives for preventing spam." Similar to other providers, she said AT&T employs filters that block unwanted text messages.
RED TAPE WRESTLING TIPS
So far, cell phone text spam is relatively rare, so this is more of a nuisance than a crisis. Still, no one wants to call customer service every time a spam text appears to ask for a 15 cent refund or a one-message credit. So here's what to do:
• Turn off texting if you never use it and your carrier offers that option. By default, almost all phones are text-enabled now.
• If you might eventually want to use text messaging, get on the cheapest plan possible. Many carriers offer a few hundred messages for $2 to $3. I hate to recommend adding a service you might not use all the time, but predictable bills are better than surprises. Even $5 a month is better than one unexpected $45 bill that shows up after teenager suddenly discovers "how 2 txt."
• Call and complain when you get text spam. It's the only way to motivate your carrier to stay on top of the problem.