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Text messages: The pests in our pockets

Beep! Day and night, junk text messages are assaulting ourmobiles. Direct marketing has never been so, well, direct. Amol Rajan investigates how our numbers are being targeted – and what we can do to stop it

Some come to solicit your money; others pretend they’ll give you more of it. All make demands on your time, and very few are motivated by the noble intentions they profess to carry.

Far from being a roll-call of the qualities of the average ex-lover, this is a brief catalogue of the many demerits of text pests. The term can be, and has been, applied liberally to cover any form of harassment by text message, some of which will verge on emotional abuse. Often this is highly personal, and sometimes – as when David Beckham and Rebecca Loos allegedly sent each other erotic messages (reported but never proven) – it’s between consenting adults.

But there is a particularly virulent strand that is flowering at the moment. Its blossoming is the product of a realisation many businesses are making: people almost always open their text messages, and once they have, they’ll get at least halfway down. That is why the latest breed of text pest, far from being seedy individuals with too much spare time and too few inhibitions, are businesses either in search of new customers, or desperate to retain current ones.

Take the following example, which is typical. A few weeks ago, as she sat down to watch Manchester United get thumped by Barcelona, a friend of your correspondent received the following text on her phone: “Enjoy tonight’s Champions League Final with a takeaway, order online @ www.tastytakeaways.co.uk or call 08448750 666. To stop, text STOP to 08881481579”.

Her sin was to sign up to the meal delivery company’s database, leaving her phone number in the process. Restaurants, supermarkets, and food outlets have been especially quick to employ texts. They know that people who have paid for their services have already declared a preference for them, and preferences in relation to food tend to become habits. Indeed, one monthly message to this correspondent reads: “Eat @ Munchies Restaurant tonight – special deals and half price offers. Plus free bottle of wine if you spend £25+”. If they know you’ve eaten with them once, goes the thinking, you can probably be tempted to go again.

Other text pest techniques – or as digital types call it, SMS marketing – provide incentives to customers who hand over contact details. Next, the clothes retailer, asks for customers’ telephone numbers on the back of leaflets and vouchers. In return for providing their mobile numbers, customers receive updates of forthcoming sales with promises of between 5 and 10 per cent off for people who show the text message.

Audi, the car manufacturer, sends people who have recently bought a car with it – and have agreed to being sent messages by text – updates on forthcoming sales, information on special offers and deals, as well as invitations to ceremonies.

One of the reasons that this method of marketing is flourishing is that Britons love their mobile phones. The 72 million handsets in this country are used by 38 million adults and children, over a quarter of whom spend more than an hour a day using their phones for one reason or another, according to First Direct, a telephone banking firm. And the sudden explosion of a new breed of phones – Blackberry, iPhone, Google’s G1 – with increasingly sophisticated software and internet capability, means that those who do have mobile phones are relying on them for an ever-broadening array of functions.

All of which makes the text message something of a treasure trove for marketeers. Though compared to emails, text message marketing has the disadvantage of costing a few pence (whereas emails are free), the chief virtue of text messages is that recipients very rarely delete them without opening them first. And being small packages, senders are (as the more technical language puts it) guaranteed a hit.

Jed MacEwan, the 33 year-old founder of Green Media, a digital marketing company, insists that not all text marketing is spam. “The fact that |you have a cost associated with sending text |messages, albeit just a few pennies, acts as a kind of quality control,” MacEwan says. “The fact that emails are free makes them far more susceptible to spammers.”

MacEwan thinks SMS marketing points to a huge future growth industry. “I’d suggest we will see a lot more of it, and that’s a good thing provided it’s in the right areas. The trouble is its effectiveness will be diluted by spammers. Across the world probably just a handful of spammers are responsible for around 85 per cent of all spam. So though the method has definitely expanded, it has its inherent problems, associated with |unsolicited text messages.” Green Media, MacEwan adds, “wouldn’t just buy a database with 100,000 names and contact numbers on them, but other companies might”.

Privacy is a crucial issue, he says, which companies avoid at their peril: “Whether or not you get unsolicited messages depends on the privacy policy in action when you hand over the information.” Such a policy is dictated by the EU’s Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications, or E-Privacy Directive for short.

It follows the course of logic that by far the most effective way to beat text pests is to keep a tight leash on your phone number. The fewer people you give it to, the less likely that you’ll be hassled. Simon Bates, director of standards and communications

at PhonePay Plus, a subsidiary of Ofcom, which regulates all phone-paid services in Britain, says: “There are all kinds of unsolicited text messages, many of which are seeking your money.”

PhonePay Plus’s responsibility covers those messages that charge or offer services which will cost the recipient something. Complaints, Bates says, are at a steady level, and if anything reducing slightly as consumers wise up to the techniques of SMS marketing. “When you’re filling in a form or buying something you’ll usually have a choice of whether to tick a box saying you want more information or not. That box really matters: pay attention to what it says and be clear if you don’t want to receive new updates.”

Over the past year a new rule has been introduced which forces companies to prove that customers receiving text messages from them have actually opted into the SMS marketing scheme by positively affirming their desire for regular updates. The effects of this change, Bates says, are now being felt.

Ultimately, it will remain impossible to fully regulate or control commercial text pests, because phone numbers can very easily get into the hands of undesirables. “Some computer software can generate random lists; other people sell them in the pub or on eBay,” according to Bates. But to the extent that anybody with a mobile phone can control who knows their number, the message rings clear and familiar: keep your digits to yourself and don’t believe all you read.