Beware of SMS Scams

Reporter: Laura Sparkes

They look like advertising when they pop up as an SMS but you could be being charged every time you receive a message. They are usually classified as annoying but unsolicited SMS messages, known as premium SMS, are costing Australians big bucks. Without realising it every time we receive one, whether it be a new ring tone or your horoscope for the month, we're hit with a bill costing up to $7. It does not matter if you open it or delete it, you are still charged.

Jennie Johnstone wondered why her mobile phone bill kept rising each month. Eventually she sat down and realised she was forking out $4.54 every time she received an unsolicited SMS and her daughter was paying just under $2. In eight months she has paid out $500. "I never authorised Optus to hook me up to these messages that I've been sent and I've never asked for any of these messages to be sent," she said. "I've never downloaded anything on my mobile phone, so I don't know how these companies who I've never heard of even got my number."

Ina Veurink's daughter thought the unsolicited SMS messages she received were simple junk mail so she deleted them. On reading her daughter's bill, Ina realised she owed an extra $40. "I couldn't believe how much the bill was so I went through it and there was all these special purchased messages and they were $6.60 each," Ina said. "They're ripping us off."

Both Jenny and Ina contacted their phone carriers, Optus and Telstra, but were told they had to call the companies who had sent the messages. So how do these phone companies get our mobile numbers? Well it could be via the internet. A recent study by security software company Symantec found almost two-thirds of Australians are more likely to give away personal information on the internet than they would in person - without thinking of where the information might end up.

Telecommunications legal expert Hamish Fraser said the premium SMS industry is controlled by two codes. "The code is quite strict about the fact that you must have actually requested the service and before you requested the service you really need to know or be advised the costs of that service and soon after you have to be advised on how to contact those people and how to make complaints," he said.

"You're not allowed to be charged for an SMS you haven't asked for or a premium SMS you haven't asked for." Hamish said if you do receive an unsolicited SMS, do not delete the message. "Read it, if you don't understand it, ask someone who might understand what it means, try sending STOP, try unsubscribing." He also advises consumers to read their bills and question any unusual SMSs. If everything fails, go to the telecommunications industry ombudsman because they have the power to demand the consumer receives a refund. Last financial year saw more than 9500 complaints recorded on unsolicited premium SMS texts, that is a 50 per cent increase.

Contact details

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman is a free and independent alternative dispute resolution scheme for small business and residential consumers in Australia with unresolved complaints about their telephone or internet services.

Visit www.tio.com.au for more information.