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Mobile phones face 'spam epidemic'

By Simon Hooper for CNN

More than 70 percent of mobile users consider all spam unacceptable.
More than 70 percent of mobile users consider all spam unacceptable.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Mobile phones have become an essential business tool for many workers, but an explosive growth in junk mail targeted at mobile users could undermine their effectiveness.

A new global study reveals how a growing tide of "spam", already flooding through employees' email defenses, has now spread to phone networks in the form of unsolicited text and "missed call" messages.

And the survey, conducted by British mobile data technology company Empower Interactive, reported that although 80 percent of mobile operators accepted that spam posed a major problem, only 20 percent had implemented safeguards to protect their customers.

A third of operators admitted they had no plans at all to combat the spread of spam, despite clear evidence that most mobile phone users regard it as an unwelcome intrusion.

In a parallel survey, 65 percent of users said they already received up to five spam messages a week. Those who signed up for extra services such as ring tones or games were most likely to be targeted.

While 45 percent of operators considered that acceptable, more than 70 percent of users were opposed to receiving any unsolicited communications at all.

Last year British mobile watchdog, the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS), said it received more than 10,000 complaints about mobile spam.

'Missed call marketing'

And spammers are still finding new ways to target phone users. This week the UK's Guardian newspaper reported a new spam scam called "missed call marketing" in which computer-generated calls ring just once to leave a "missed call" message on a user's handset.

If they then returned the call they were transferred to a premium rate number, offering a cash prize but more regularly leaving victims with a hefty charge on their phone bill.

"It is completely illegal, inappropriate, unsolicited and unethical and we will take action against it," the ICSTIS told the Guardian.

Mass marketing material sent electronically without the receiver's consent is already illegal in Europe following a European Commission directive last year.

Last month Britain's main operators 3, O2, Orange, T-Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Vodafone signed a new code of practice, welcomed by government communications minister Stephen Timms, to "combat bulk and nuisance communications."

In Japan, Vodafone KK announced on February 4 that it would establish an email address for customers to forward on any spam and promised to bar anyone caught spamming from using the network.

But Empower Interactive CEO Richard Shearer warned that tougher measures were needed to prevent phone spam reaching unmanageable levels.

"The industry is aware that mobile spam is growing at an alarming rate," said Shearer.

"Operators recognize the value of mobile messaging yet unless measures are also taken from within the industry, this problem may eventually reach the epidemic proportions of Internet spam."

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