Spam texts are a modern scourge, plaguing our mobile phones with unwanted adverts, often from dodgy companies. Yet it is possible to fight back, report them and minimise the number you get.
This quick guide takes you through how to identify the three main types of unwanted texts and how to deal with each.
In this guide
In the world of spam texts there are three main types of message. How you deal with each type is totally different.
Legitimate marketing messages
These messages should include the name and contact details of the sender. You will usually have given consent for them to be sent, though possibly unknowingly.
How to spot 'em: Firms will identify themselves within the body of text or in the sent-from number (this will show as text). If they don't do this, it's breaking regulations and can be considered spam.
How to stop 'em: Don't reply. Read Stop Marketing Texts
Again, these are services you have agreed to. But you may be unaware that by buying a ringtone or service on your mobile you're getting a regular, charged text.
How to spot 'em: It will be from a four, five or six-digit number and will bill you for receiving the message.
How to stop 'em: Read Stop Premium Texts
These are usually messaging randomly generated numbers, advertising services like accident 'ambulance chasers', PPI claims handlers, debt write-off companies and more.
How to spot 'em: They usually come from an 11-digit mobile number, and the company isn't usually identified. It's trying to entice you to reply.
How to stop 'em: Read Stop Spam Texts
|Yes, they were about...||% who replied
|% who didn't
|Payment Protection Insurance||
|'Legal way' to write off debt||
|Tax rebate reclaiming||
4,584 people selected 13,689 options, 20 Jun 2011
These are messages that you've never asked for and don't want. It's likely to be generic, not targeting you personally, though with the more sophisticated ones that can happen.
Spammers have favourite categories of attacks and frequently change individual messages in order to try and evade detection, resulting in a large number of variants. In fact, a recent report by security analyst Cloudmark found that, globally, there were over 350,000 different types of spam circulating in 2012.
The report reveals that the most common unsolicited spam purported to be gift card offerings (44%), iPhone and iPad free giveaways (11%) and, in the UK in particular, Payment Protection Insurance (PPI) compensation (3%).
For more, see are any claims messages legitimate?
Are claims messages ever legitimate?
After an accident, an insurer may ask you if it can pass your details onto a claims management firm, who'll then text you.
However, if this is the case, hopefully your insurer will have informed you that it's passed your details on. Even if it doesn't, the claims handler MUST clearly identify where it got your details. If they won't give this information, you shouldn't proceed.
Increasingly common, these messages are sent by computers to masses of randomly generated numbers. They use multiple pay-as-you-go Sim cards which will often only be active for a week or two. It's a scam aiming to obtain genuine personal details. The GOLDEN rule is...
Do NOT reply, at all, ever -
do NOT text STOP!
These texts WANT any response to confirm you are a real person and not an unused mobile number. Some even try to trick you by saying "text 'STOP' to be removed from the mailing list". IGNORE THIS! (Of course, it can be difficult to split the legit from the not-legit.)
Any numbers that are confirmed are likely to be sold on to injury claim specialists, PPI reclaiming firms or other unscrupulous marketeers who may further spam you with unsolicited calls and texts. Ensure you don't click on any links within the text either.
Read more details about whether it's illegal for them to sell my details?
Surely it's illegal to buy and sell my details?
The buying and selling of your information itself is illegal if you haven't given permission. Solicitors, claims management firms and anyone else who buys data are supposed to make sure it has been obtained legitimately.
Not doing this could breach the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations, the Data Protection Act and for legal firms, the Solictors' Regulations. Unfortunately, as companies don't tend to keep all the paperwork, the information trail has been very difficult for the Ministry of Justice to follow, so often action can't be taken.
The whole area is currently a bit of a black hole, and some spammers profit from it.
Five steps to minimise spam texts
Unfortunately there is no official opt-out system for these spam messages, as they are sent to tens of thousands of numbers at a time. They are often sent by companies operating from abroad and thereby outside the ambit of British law, or from pay-as-you-go Sims (also evading the law), so nothing is assured to work.
However, the following steps will help reduce the number of spam texts you get:
to any sort of spam message. It confirms your number is active, and you'll be likely to get more. If you confirm interest then your details will be sold on to a firm that is likely to call you to try to get you to use them. The legitimacy of these firms often can't be confirmed.
Be careful who you give your number to
when filling in details, especially for marketing companies or those asking to send your details on to third parties. Don't give your mobile number unless absolutely required - this should at least cut down the number of unwanted but legitimate calls.
Don't list your mobile number anywhere online
That includes Facebook, Twitter, the MoneySavingExpert.com forum or elsewhere - even in pages you may think are private.
Always check privacy policies and marketing opt-outs
These can be tricky, as companies want to contact you, but read the small print and follow instructions to avoid communications.
Complain to the Information Commissioner (ICO)
All complaints will be investigated by the ICO. Offenders can be punished with fines.
Spammers do it because they are getting responses. They can sell these details on to debt management or claims firms. They get paid big cash for these 'leads'. If nobody replied, there would be no data for them to sell, making what they do pointless.
There are two options you can follow when it comes to spam messages. These won't completely stop spam messages but the more of us that do this and don't reply the less spam we're likely to get in future.
1. Report it to your network provider
The first option is to report it to your network provider. The big networks have a simple, FREE method to help you do this. Just forward the message to 7726 (spells SPAM), making sure it includes the senders' number.
2. Report it to the Information Commissioner
The second option is to report it to the Information Commissioner (ICO), which can fine firms up to £500,000 for the most serious breaches of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR), which govern spam texts. Two individuals were slapped with £250,000 fines in 2012 for sending unsolicited texts.
The Information Commissioner can look at texts sent within the UK or on behalf of a UK company. Unfortunately, some messages are sent by companies outside the UK or through anonymous pay-as-you-go Sims, which means they are difficult to prevent or punish, and difficult to stop.
However, you should make a complaint to ICO. It can then investigate the matter, and penalise firms if it thinks rules have been broken and they are based in the UK.
The ICO looks at every complaint and the more detail you provide, the better it can deal with it.
It's best to check the ICO's website to check for information about recent investigations before making a complaint.
If you get one of these texts, you should record exactly what the text says and the number it was sent from, then complain to the ICO via:
- Online: Complete the online survey
- Telephone: 0303 123 1113
- Email/post: Fill in this ICO template letter and email to email@example.com or post to:
First Contact Team
Information Commissioner's Office
The ICO is especially keen to hear about either calls or texts that describe a specific event or injury that has actually happened to you. This information may have been obtained illicitly from an employee disclosing confidential information.
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Many of these companies charge for services which you can do yourself:
- PPI reclaiming. For most people, this can be done for free, without giving up any of your compensation, using the template letters available in our full PPI Reclaiming and Credit Card PPI Reclaiming guides.
- Write off your debts! This is almost impossible (see the Debt write-off loophole closed MSE News story). If you need help with problem debts, you should contact a free debt-help agency such as Citizens Advice, Consumer Credit Counselling Service or National Debtline. Full info in our Debt Problems guide.
- Accident compensation. This is difficult to do by yourself. But by the same token, firms using unsolicited texts are unlikely to be the best route.
If you want to pursue an accident claim, try speaking to your insurer, or seek advice from Legal Aid or Citizens Advice. For a full list of authorised and regulated claims management firms, see the Ministry of Justice.
- Tax rebates. In 2012, HMRC announced 3.5 million people were due a tax code rebate as they’d overpaid, sometimes for years. Almost instantly, firms popped up offering to do it for you for a slice of the dosh. Yet you can easily do it yourself at no cost. See our Free Tax Code Calculator for a step-by-step guide on checking if you're owed and how to get it back. Reclaiming successes of £1,000 are common – and some get even more.
- Payday loans. The texts will offer instant access to cash for a short term at extremely high interest rates. These should only be used as a very last resort. See the payday loan guide to find out more. Alternatives include 'Bad Credit' Credit Cards and Credit Unions. If you need help with managing debt, visit our Debt Problems guide.
- Insurance policies. Spam texts offering cheap insurance are unlikely to represent the best cover for you. Instead read our full cost-cutting systems for Car, Home, Travel, Pet, Breakdown and Life insurance.
You get legitimate marketing messages when you fail to tick or untick a box (whether on purpose or by accident) which allows companies to send you marketing messages or give your details to third party operators.
If legit, the text will always include who they are either in the body of the message or in the sender field, in line with regulations.
If you don't know who the message is from, then BEWARE, it's probably SPAM!
How to stop them
Firstly, text 'STOP'. Firms are legally obliged to pay attention to this. However, make sure you are 100% certain it is a legitimate marketing message, or you may get even more spam.
If that doesn't work, try the website of the company named in the message. You should be able to find an option to opt out of receiving its texts. If not, phone the firm and request it stops.
If that doesn't work, complain to the Information Commissioner, who can punish the firm with fines. To complain to the ICO:
- Online: Complete the online survey
- Phone: 0303 123 1113
- Email: Fill in this ICO template letter and email to firstname.lastname@example.org or post to:
First Contact Team
Information Commissioner's Office
These are sometimes called 'reversed billed' messages. It's where you get charged for receiving a text to your phone. These are becoming more and more common - normally for subscription services such as ringtones, or weather/news updates.
Often you will have signed up for these services in the past, but subsequently forgotten or not cancelled. The cost can run into £100s, so act quickly to avoid paying a fortune.
How to stop them?
Here you should reply STOP or STOP ALL, in order to block future messages from that company.
This should work, but if the messages keep a-comin', use PayPhonePlus's Number Checker. Simply enter the number and it'll give you contact details for the company, which you can use to request it stops the messages. Alternatively get in touch with your network provider - O2, Vodafone, etc - and ask it to stop the messages.
If this fails and you're still tearing your hair out, the final stage is to get in touch with the premium rate regulator PhonePayPlus and it'll investigate your complaint.
Get your money back?
Sending texts to people who have explicitly specified they don't want them is unlawful. Unfortunately, you'll only be entitled to a refund if you DIDN'T subscribe to the service.
Failing to opt out of messages - where you fill in a form which automatically signs you up to a premium text service, unless you specifically tick or untick a box - doesn't count as subscribing to the service. You must actively sign up before they can legitimately send texts that charge.
If you're sure you never signed up for the premium texts, don't delete the message. You may need the details later. You can try to get a refund for any charges incurred through PhonePayPlus which regulates this industry. Follow this quick two-step process.
Find the texter's details:
Use PhonePayPlus's Number Checker to garner as much info as you can about the message sender.
Register your complaint
Online: Use its ready-made online claim form, then PhonePayPlus will investigate your case for a refund, then write to you with its outcome as well as if you've won, how to get your money back.
Phone: 0800 500 212 (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm)
PhonePayPlus will ask the provider for proof you signed up to receive the service. If there is any doubt then they can order the firm to refund you. In cases of serious harm the firm can be fined up to £250,000 and barred from operating premium rate services.