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Spam invasion targets mobile phones

Spam is migrating from your e-mail box to  your cell phone.
Spam is migrating from your e-mail box to your cell phone.

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HONG KONG, China (Reuters) -- If you thought your spam problems couldn't get any worse, check your mobile phone.

Cell phones are becoming the latest target of electronic junk mail, with a growing number of marketers using text messages to target subscribers.

Mobile phone spam has yet to approach anything like the volume of the e-mail variety, but the problem is growing in a region where the average user sends as many as 10 SMS (short message service) messages a day.

"SMS spam is certainly something that people are focusing on, particularly in markets like Japan where it is a common problem," said Jeff Bullwinkel, a spokesman for Microsoft Corp, which is spearheading a worldwide anti-spam campaign. "It's big in markets where mobile communications are prevalent."

Mobile phone companies were reluctant to talk about the trend, but evidence of the problem abounded on the Web site of NTT DoCoMo, Japan's biggest mobile phone company.

The site carries cautionary words about a junk message regarding the need for B-negative blood for a child's operation, and instructions to forward a chain-mail or face financial consequences.

The phone company also warns of messages claiming to come from DoCoMo asking people to send money to a particular bank account.

Individual users face difficulty blocking such messages because of their random origins, although DoCoMo lets users set accounts to receive only messages from specified sources.

SMS spammers in Japan typically find their prey by generating at random the e-mail style addresses used for text messaging in the country, a DoCoMo spokesman said.

Taking legal action

DoCoMo -- whose users send and receive 10 messages a day on average -- is fighting SMS spam through measures such as blocking huge quantities of messages that lack specified recipients, he added.

It is also taking legal action, and has cut off 2,173 lines because of spam abuse and sought damages in some cases.

Text messages are big money spinners for mobile operators, reaping profit margins of 60 to 80 percent, so the networks can benefit financially from such spam even as they fight it.

But for users, SMS spam has the potential to become a big headache in Asia, where short messaging has become a way of life for many. Marketers have noticed the trend and increasingly use the medium as a tool for their trade, analysts said.

The Philippines leads the region in SMS use, with cell phone users sending an average 252 messages per month, according to marketing information group TNS. Singapore, China and Japan are the next biggest users.

Mobile phone users in China sent a whopping 10 billion messages during last month's eight-day Lunar New Year holiday, or 7.7 for every one of the country's 1.3 billion people.

Marketers like the immediacy and quick attention SMS messages typically receive from users, said Chi-wing Chan, regional director for telecommunications and technology at TNS.

He said text messages from retailers offering discount "coupons" are already common, particularly in Singapore, and can even be tailored to activate when, for example, a network identifies that a subscriber is close to destinations like shopping malls.

He added that SMS messages -- be they spam or legitimate -- also tend to receive immediate attention in Asia.

"People like to receive messages," he said. "They think it's cool. When you get an SMS message you deal with it immediately, but for e-mails it just feeds into your e-mail box."

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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