Watch Out for the Rs. 500 SMS!

by Abhinna Shreshtha    Feb 04, 2009

As if spam and phishing mails were not enough, their cousins — spam SMSs, have entered the fray once again. Yesterday, Bharti Airtel posted an advisory on their website, advising subscribers to beware of certain ‘Unsolicited fraudulent SMS’s’ circulating on the network. Such SMS hoaxes are not a new phenomenon in India and cash in on the recipient’s incredulity by making use of ‘get rich quick’ themes and ‘free gifts’ to allure mobile phone users.

According to the Airtel disclaimer, the recent chain of messages informs recipients that they have ‘won a prize and need to call to collect their prize’. On calling the number in the text message, subscribers are billed a high amount (up to Rs. 500/min). Airtel said they noticed these SMSs in one of their circles and are advising subscribers to ignore them. Airtel also warned that replying to such SMSs could result in viruses being downloaded on the subscriber’s phone.
We spoke to some other prominent mobile operators in India to see whether this recent incident was part of a larger menace, but thankfully this does not seem to be the case. A Vodafone spokesperson said that such spam SMSs were quite common, though Vodafone had not got similar reports in its network for the last six-seven months.

Rajesh Patalia, AGM (mobile data & content services) of Reliance Communications, also said that though such messages were common, there had not been any major instances to report recently. He blamed web spammers for launching these attacks and said that they do not single out any particular network provider, but launch a mass attack by sending out bulk SMSs to random numbers. Patalia said that some blame also lies with subscribers who do not always report receiving such fraudulent messages.

Frauds like these are a type of Premium Rate Service Fraud (PRS), using SMSs instead of phone calls. In this type of fraud, subscribers are asked to call on a number by using pretexts like ‘lottery winnings’, ‘free gifts’, or, as in this case; that they have won a prize. Once subscribers make the call, it is disguised as a Premium Rate Service (PRS) number and the subscriber is charged an exorbitant amount.

So what steps can be taken to combat this nuisance? There is not much one can do it seems, though posting advisories on the website is one way. Sending warning messages to subscribers as soon as such a message or call is detected in the circle is another way. Vodafone said it follows this policy.


 (With added inputs from Prabhu Ram)


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