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Fighting the spammer

Phuong Thao
Friday,  Nov 25,2016,13:50 (GMT+7)
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Fighting the spammer

Phuong Thao

Spam text messages have long been a headache for millions of mobile subscribers in Vietnam, who every day are bothered by nuisance advertising texts. The messages are not sent by mobile network operators, but from unknown users of simcards.

SMS spammers are those trying to sell services in a host of fields including insurance, real estate, credit cards and consumer loans. The emergence of free-of-charge, Internet-based text and call apps such as Viber, Zalo and Facebook Messenger have created more channels for SMS spammers and telemarketers to disturb consumers.

Authorities in the past took measures to curb spam text messages. Telecom companies have also instructed their simcard agents to strictly follow the rules on protection of personal data of mobile subscribers. Sales agents are not permitted to sell or buy simcards that are already activated. To buy a prepaid simcard, users have to produce their ID or passport and need to be registered before the simcard is activated. However, the regulations are rarely enforced in reality. Now that the situation has gone from bad to worse, the Ministry of Information and Communications has stepped in to restore order.

The ministry has ordered mobile network providers to intensify the confiscation of pre-activated simcards in order to reduce spam texts.

Five mobile carriers, Viettel, VNPT (VinaPhone), MobiFone, Gtel Mobile and Vietnammobile, were told to review their distribution channels and deactivate pre-activated simcards early this month. They committed to finishing the job before December 15.

The ministry said it would form inspection teams and direct local information departments to examine the process at each carrier. It is also drafting an amendment to Article 15 of the Government’s Decree 25 that was issued in 2011. The amendment will increase fines on carriers, distribution agents and customers that violate the regulations on registering, storing and using mobile accounts’ details.

Leaders of mobile and telecommunication enterprises would face a fine of VND180-200 million if violating contractual procedures, general trading conditions and regulations on registering and storing mobile accounts’ information.

According to the Vietnam Post and Telecommunications Group (VNPT), which owns both Vinaphone and MobiFone, only 46 million of its 75.5 million mobile subscribers nationwide are actually active. Furthermore, as many as 5.5 million subscribers have been blocked by carriers because of overdue telecom bills. All these simcards will also be recalled later.

VinaPhone, meanwhile, has sent texts to subscribers and invited users of pre-activated simcards to re-verify their identity at its transaction stores. If the customers did not re-verify their identity within 15 days after receiving the notice, their access to all mobile services would be blocked on November 21. The operator guaranteed that none of its distributors would be distributing pre-activated simcards by January 1, 2017.

Minister of Information and Communications Truong Minh Tuan says in Thanh Nien newspaper that the fast growth of the telecom and IT market has brought about great changes in society, but also big problems like unsolicited texts and calls. The pre-activated simcards could also be used to commit crime and terrorism. Mobile carriers and relevant agencies therefore must enact measures to prevent unwanted texts as this “rubbish” is ruining social order and threatening national security.

Management over prepaid mobile subscribers depends on polices and business strategies of carriers but they have to respect law. They have developed an extensive network of simcard agents to expand business. Therefore, they need policies to supervise their dealers and detect users who bombard others with spam texts and invalidate their accounts, as well as oversee the content of mobile-based services, Tuan adds.

However, consumers still cast doubt on the ministry’s new effort because previous anti-spam campaigns have gained poor results. According to many subscribers, they still receive some 20 to 30 unwanted texts a day even though they have blocked unknown phone numbers and forwarded them to the SpamAlert system operated by the Vietnam Computer Emergency Response Team (VNCERT), which allows users to report spam by forwarding them to +456.

Last year, the Agency for Information Security under the ministry suggested banning a single user from sending more than 50 texts a day to combat spam. As proposed, each subscriber should be allowed to send a maximum of five texts in five minutes, and should not be permitted to send more than 20 messages an hour, or over 50 text messages a day. Limits should be set for local users and those who cross the line without permission will have their service suspended by carriers.

However, both subscribers and carriers criticized the idea due to its inconvenience. Later, HCMC authorities requested carriers to develop technical systems that can block unsolicited texts based on the number of texts sent, the senders, and the message content and regularly update a database of key words usually seen in unwanted texts. However, their anti-spam systems could not work better.

While spam texts upset subscribers, they might make mobile carriers happy because they can pocket big amounts of money from those texts. It is evident that pre-activated simcards are the root of spamming, but no sane telecom firms would stop this good stream of revenue, says Thanh Ha, a reader of Tuoi Tre newspaper.

Carriers signed a commitment to cancel pre-activated simcards last month, but the ministry on Wednesday fined a company for violating simcard promotion rules, which suggests that carriers still reap huge revenues from spam texts, much bigger than penalties imposed by the ministry.

“Therefore, though telecom enterprises pledged to get rid of pre-activated simcards, authorities must be determined to make the plan successful. Otherwise, we will fall victim to spam texts again,” the reader adds.

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