SUNDAY TIMES - Is rampant cellphone scamming a conspiracy of con men?
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Sunday Times Opinion By Arthur Goldstuck , 2017-04-16 00:00:00.0

Is rampant cellphone scamming a conspiracy of con men?

It is astonishing that, more than 30 years into the cellphone revolution, mobile network operators still do not actively protect their own customers from abuse of their accounts.

Social networks are regularly flooded with complaints about receiving inflated bills for unintended roaming, excessive data use, subscription services that were not requested, and failure to respect self-selected spending limits.

The consensus - and it is generally wrong - is that the network operators themselves are scamming their customers. When a data bundle mysteriously depletes in hours or even minutes, the assumption is that the operator has stolen the data.

The truth is more mundane and more complex: most smartphones constantly communicate with cellular towers to check for messages, updates to apps, and even updates to the information stored in the apps. This is usually referred to as background updates, and can range from a small app using minimal data to large apps ranging in size from 50MB to 100MB.

On the surface, then, most data depletion is not the operator's fault. Or is it? In fact, operators make little effort to inform or educate their users about these dangers. Background updates are usually active by default, and some background activity is allowed to happen entirely invisibly. It is then up to the user to find the setting that prevents this happening without permission.

This is frightening and anti-consumer in an era when numerous inexperienced consumers are moving from basic phones to smartphones.

The operators have a moral obligation to help consumers help themselves. It is not enough for customers to be advised at the time of purchase: often, it is only when the phone is in regular use that the issues emerge.

Scamsters are running rampant with rackets that con phone users into clicking on a link that results in subscribing to R7-per-day content services. There is recourse, such as contacting the network operator's call centre - and good luck with that - or lodging a complaint with the Wireless Application Service Providers Association (waspa.org.za).

Many content providers, known as wireless application service providers, have been fined by Waspa for misleading consumers, but far more slip through the net, thanks to something called third-party billing, which allows them to bill consumers via the operator.

It is obvious that such billing should be disabled by default, and the consumer should have to go through several steps of approval and authentication to agree to additional bills. But, as the R7/day victims have found, this simply does not happen. Waspa has secured the agreement of all operators for a "double opt-in" rule that requires them to confirm the subscription twice, but scamsters circumvent it.

Each operator has a number to cancel such services (Cell C: *133*1# ; MTN: *141*5 ; Vodacom: send "STOP ALL" to 30333) but it is almost impossible to find this information on their websites.

While this lack of information and protection is obviously not an intentional ploy by operators to share in the fraud, it is easy to see why angry consumers believe it is due to a conspiracy of con men.

Goldstuck is the founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter @art2gee