SMS: The New Spam Frontier

By @zachfeldman
Written on Dec 19, 2013

Text messaging and e-mail are two entirely different beasts. E-mail is something you can catch up on. If I don’t answer my e-mail for a day nobody will worry about my health or personal safety. If I get a text though, I’m seemingly expected to reply to it quickly or at least within a few hours. Perhaps this is just a symptom of how connected our society is, but this is why I like to reserve text messaging for only important communications where I need an answer quickly.

At work the other day I received a new text message thinking it was probably one of my friends asking if I was free that weekend or perhaps a family member needing a quick answer to a question. Instead, this is what I saw:

My jaw dropped as I realized that we’d entered a new and terrifying era in communications spam: SMS spam.

Why is this any different than e-mail spam or telemarketing?

E-mail has changed communication because it’s typically provided for “free”. You pay in the advertisements that are shown in your e-mail client, which may or may not be personalized based on your e-mail’s content (I’m looking at you Gmail).

Text messaging is very different. Besides the above mentioned urgency, text messaging also costs money to receive. Although many are on unlimited plans, what if you have only a few messages left and these spam messages are the tipping point for overage charges on your plan? Do the wireless companies have a plan to refund customers money for text messages they never asked for?

With services like Twilio opening up their APIs and making it easy for any kind of software to send text messages en masse, we need to be more vigilant as a community of possible text message service abuse. I’m not saying that Twilio is to blame or that their culpapable in this, in fact their one of my favorite API services, but they certainly do make it easier to send SMS messages at scale along with other services. My theory is that these spammer are sending text messages to e-mail addresses. You can text any Verizon e-mail by using the mobile number, so maybe they just sent a mass message to thousands or hundreds of thousands of random numbers.

Text messaging as a viral growth strategy

What is this? This seems to me like a huge invasion of privacy and a break from the unwritten law that text messages are sacred territory, only meant for situations that need to evoke a fast response. Especially because the text message indicates no way to unsubscribe. I’m extremely wary of services using text messaging like this, but if they do, unsubscribe for life messaging is necessary. More importantly, there should be a way to completely opt out of notifications from any service. Perhaps blocking all texts from people who are not a contact would work.

The iPhone has a feature where you can block a certain caller, which I did with the spam messages and the Circle message:

However, it’s easy to use multiple phone numbers to send SMS messages so this isn’t a bullet proof strategy to avoid SMS spam.

Marketing through SMS

The final point I’d like to bring up are small businesses using text message marketing. I went to get a haircut at a new place in SoHo a few months ago. When they asked for my number, I didn’t hesitate, thinking it would be a way to easily identify myself if I were calling for an appointment. It wasn’t mentioned at the time that there would be any other kind of contact through my number.

A few days later, I received a coupon for 10% off from the barbershop. This completely threw me off guard and actually made me pretty angry. I felt like my privacy and typical use of text messaging had been invaded once again, promptly calling the shop to remove me from the list. I haven’t been back since.


If this is too long for you to read, my main point is that we need to be careful how we use SMS in software and marketing applications. Also, there seems to be a growing threat of straight (and annoying) SMS spam coming to your phone. Perhaps some more iOS level SMS security is also in order, allowing you to reject text messages from anybody not on your contact list. Of course, this might cause a bit of a problem for the typical way people share contact details by texting each other first, but perhaps it could be easily temporarily disabled.

Either way, let’s hope I don’t get any more text message spam!

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