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Block Spam From Your Smartphone

By Marc Saltzman

Spam is a lot more than a mere annoyance. Manually reading and deleting these unsolicited offers for pharmaceutical products or bank loans can seriously eat away at your productivity. If the spam you receive contains a phishing attempt, spyware or virus, it has the potential to wreak havoc.

If you thought spam on the PC is getting bad -- accounting for more than 75 percent of all email today, according to experts -- it’s about to hit your smartphone, too.

Why it’s worse than PC spam
Consider it the calm before the storm. Many IT analysts and security experts believe spammers are beginning to turn their attention to smartphones. And it could even be a lot worse than what we’ve seen on computers.

First, there are more ways a spammer can reach you via your smartphone, says Sean Ryan, research analyst for mobile enterprise at IDC, a technology research firm based in Framingham, Mass. “Simply put, there are more connectivity avenues with smartphones,” says Ryan. “The more wireless technologies and applications, the greater the likelihood of spam.” Smartphones offer the convenience of email, SMS (text-based Short Messaging Service), MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), Wi-Fi and even Bluetooth, points out Ryan.

The most common smartphone spam today is via SMS, says Joe Ridout, spokesperson for Consumer Action, a national nonprofit education and advocacy organization. “Millions of people have received spam through text messages -- and that’s from those who actually report it,” says Ridout. “Text-messaging spam is particularly annoying to cell phone users because you also have to pay for the spam.” Often, says Ridout, you can’t delete the spam without opening it and putting yourself at risk.

Risky business
These risks include identity theft scams such as malicious attempts to steal your credit card or other information. “At first, phone-related spam was about hocking junk products but increasingly includes identity theft schemes, too,” says Ridout.

Ryan believes the rise in “m-commerce,” or mobile commerce using your phone to make payments, also contributes to the problem. “We’re seeing in some markets, such as Europe and Asia, people think they’re buying a ringtone through a premium SMS or MMS but at the end of the month, they get a big surprise on their phone bill.”

The threat is escalated if corporate data -- often housed on a smartphone -- is vulnerable to exposure, says Ryan. “Company secrets and customer data, for example, could be at risk, which could be very damaging to a business or individuals.”

The risk has grown, in part, says Ryan, because simply more people are purchasing smartphones. Today, smartphones make up roughly 11 percent of all mobile phones worldwide, but that number is expected to increase to 25 percent by 2012.

What can you do?
Understanding you face a real threat as a smartphone user is the first step to reducing mobile spam.

Although cell phone carriers have a disincentive to stop the spam since they make money on messaging, some companies have stepped up to the plate and blocked phone spam, says Ridout. “In particular, we applaud AT&T and Verizon, both of which now allow you to change your setting so your phone won’t receive text messages from the Internet, where most spam originates from, while allowing your friends to send you an SMS from their phone.”

You can work to protect yourself. Here are several tactics:

  • Speak up Consumers suffering from phone spam should first complain to their carriers, says Ridout. “Demand credit from your cell phone company, and they will usually do it, and also complain to the attorney general as they’ll often go the extra mile to protect you in a way the FCC will not.”
  • Buy security software Look for smartphone security software. You can find sites that include a spam filter, antivirus protection and a firewall.
  • Choose an email provider carefully “With regard to email spam, I don't really see anything special about mobile spam compared to the regular kind,” says Andrew Jaquith of the Yankee Group, a company based in Boston, Mass. “It's all just email at the end of the day, and the amount of spam you get has more to do with your ISP’s practices than anything else.” Jaquith advises using an email provider that has good antispam controls, such as Google, with its recent acquisition of Postini.
  • Share your number cautiously Jaquith says SMS-based spam is another story altogether. “I worry about SMS-based spam because it costs users money when they receive unsolicited text messages.”

    So, he offers perhaps the best advice of all. Keep your cell phone number relatively private. Jaquith advises against sharing your cell phone number “unless you have to.”

If the bad guys don’t know how to reach you, you’re on your way to winning the battle against smartphone spam.

Marc Saltzman is a freelance journalist and author based in Toronto, Canada. He specializes in consumer and tech topics, including Internet trends, computers, mobility, electronic gadgets and video games.



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