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Premium Text Scams – What Are They And How To Protect Yourself

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Premium Text Services are Modern Day 900 Numbers!

Late last week, my wife brought a series of text messages she received to my attention. She wanted to know what she should do. She got 3 texts that basically said welcome to Trivia Alerts. One of the mentioned that she would be charged $9.99 a month and also said to reply with “STOP” to cancel. I had heard stories about these scams and even had to clean one that my daughter got into a couple of years ago. I remember hearing that replying sometimes activate the service and that the mention that she would be charged was supposed to scare someone into replying. I told her not to do anything, had her a screenshot of these texts, and told her I would check with Verizon the next morning.

I called Verizon the next day and found that they did sign her up and we were being charged. I started researching this to find out how she could get caught up in one of these. My wife averages 6-9 texts a month to my daughter and I. She uses less than 10 minutes of talk time a month as well. She uses the iPhone 4 as a game device mainly. What could she have done to get signed up for this scam? I reviewed her texts for a month before these text came across and she didn’t text any number out for the ordinary.

These Scams are Everywhere!

NBC Action News in Kansas City did a segment telling about these scams and talked with a user than had been charged $19.98 a month for over a year. That’s almost $240 from one user before they actually noticed.

In a similar story, my daughter got signed up for a $9.99 service a couple of years ago that I didn’t notice for 3 months. AT&T removed the charge for the current month and blocked the service.

These scammers are making tons of cash with these scams and it doesn’t seem as if the carriers are doing much to keep users from getting nailed. Last year, Verizon actually went out publicly offering to give users that fell victim to these scammers a refund. The website is still there, but the period to claim a refund has long since passed. This was an awesome gesture, but it doesn’t stop the scams from happening in the 1st place. I am not going to accuse carriers of letting it happen for their benefit, but carriers do get a percentage of the monthly fee from these services, legitimate or not.

Verizon Helped Us

With my wife’s case, I called Verizon and they were more than happy to remove the charge and block premium text charges permanently. This is not something they just add, you have to ask for it. I urge everyone to call their carrier and request this be added. Even if you think you are immune, do it anyhow. I don’t care how careful you are, according to the customer service rep I spoke with at Verizon, it can still happen to you.

I asked the Verizon rep I spoke with more questions than he wanted to answer, but got some good info:

I asked about what mobile OS he seemed to get hit the most, he told me that it seems pretty equal, Android, iOS, and feature phones. All about the same amount. When trying to find out how my wife got hit, I was leaning towards it possibly being a rogue, “free” iOS game she downloaded. This answer pretty much blew that idea out of the water.

I asked about opting in to a program like this and how these companies get away with doing this. He told me that the company that my wife fell victim to was a legitimate company and that my wife somehow opted in. According to my wife, she didn’t sign up for anything or text anyone besides my daughter. I started researching ways that these scammers get you without your knowledge and I will share that info.

How do these scammers rope us in?

I still don’t know how my wife or daughter were roped in, but here are some ways that they might get you without noticing.

  • Reality shows like American Idol offer texting as a method to vote for AT&T customers. Viewers with other carriers can call in to vote instead. AT&T customers only get charged a standard rate to vote, not a premium. If you have unlimited texting with AT&T, the vote is free. If you pay $0.20 per text, it costs $0.20 to vote. American Idol is legit, but other text to vote shows might not be. You have to make sure to read the fine print. Some shows might charge your phone a one time fee to vote, but some might actual sign you up for a premium text service which you are authorizing by initiating the vote. Is this ethical? Nope. Does it happen? Yep.
  • Have you ever been listening to a radio station and they ask you to text some keyword or phrase to a 4 or 6 digit number to join their text alert club? Some of these are legit, but some of them actually sign you up to a premium text service. While a sports talk radio station might offer a legitimate service by charging $2.99/mo for text alerts of sports news, it’s still a premium text plan. It might be a welcome service, but not all are welcome obviously.
  • Be extremely careful with services asking you to text DONATE, GIVE, and other phrases to charitable causes that arise in the news. While some are real and help those causes, many low lifes are taking advantage of bad situations to profit. Be careful and research the company asking you to give. You could text DONATE thinking you are helping hurricane victims, but might be lining the pockets of a scammer instead.
  • Be really careful online when contests, quizzes, and other Facebook garbage links as for your information. Some of these that ask for your phone number, or even more specific, your cell phone number, may slide into the fine print a premium text service. If you have to add a phone number to enter a contest, use your home number or make sure to read carefully to ensure you don’t get nailed.
  • Avoid texting for “free” horoscopes, sports alerts, gossip alerts, lotto results, free ringtones, jokes, etc without knowing and trusting a company. More times than not, these are services that will end up hitting you with a monthly charge before you know it.
  • Another way is that someone had your number before or someone signed you up by simply entering your number online somewhere.

Protect Yourself!

  • Be careful who you share you cell phone number with.
  • Don’t use your cell number online with contests and sweepstakes.
  • Don’t text for free stuff that you see on TV. Just don’t. Nothing is free really.
  • Scan your bill for monthly for services charges.
  • Get your carrier to block your number from receiving premium text messages altogether. This is free. I confirmed this with Verizon and AT&T and I can only assume that Sprint and T-Mobile are the same.
  • If you get any text messages from any 4 to 6 digit numbers, unsubscribe.  Most of them should be able to be canceled by texting the word “STOP” or “UNSUBSCRIBE” to the same number they are sending from.

Do you need another reason to care? Read about this guy that ended up having to pay $10,000.

If everyone would just call their carrier and block these services, these scammers would lose lots of potential income. Do it for your family, tell your neighbor to do it, make your parents do it. JUST DO IT! Sorry Nike!

Do you have any horror stories to share?

These scams are nothing new, but they haven’t gotten much coverage since some of the high-profile cases a few years ago. If I could save just one of you from getting screwed over, this story will worth it.

Chris is a former Microsoft MVP, Windows Phone. Chris works for AT&T, but his thoughts and opinions are his own and that he does not represent AT&T in any capacity online. ChrisLeckness.com

5 Comments

  1. Gopal Das

    03/24/2012 at 10:16 pm

    Tax scams or any other kinds, I think everybody should check Scam Detector, an app that Apple released recently. They have hundreds and hundreds of scams exposed, in several industries. For those interested, the app has an online presence as well: http://www.scam-detector.com

  2. Steve Mills

    05/23/2012 at 9:06 am

    Prevention techniques are all well and good but it does not really tackle users who have fallen victims to these so called scams. One company that can help is smsrefunds.com for a fee they will fight the rogues and get their money back. Usually by threatening them we serous financial penalties and bans. Looks good and I think that more and more people are using them. Not sure if they have launched in the USA or not but I know they are in the UK and have aggressive plans to roll out to other countries.

  3. Andrew

    06/09/2012 at 4:33 am

    New one fresh today! Offers to ‘review your pension’, promising 8% return. With text scams – DO NOT RESPOND, just DELETE them. Gov’t agencies are presently powerless to deal with these crooks (I’ve been all through the process of a complaint about the more common PPI ones).

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