Thursday 23 June 2011

Should we reply “stop” when we get spam?

Two more unsolicited messages have arrived in my in box. The first, the day before yesterday, from 07591233950 says: URGENT! If you took out a Bank Loan prior to 2007 then you are almost certainly entitled to £2300 in compensation. To claim reply “Yes”.

And that was followed a few hours later by a text from 07934208158. This one says: You have still not claimed the compensation you are due for the accident you had. To claim then pls reply CLAIM. To opt out text STOP.

Someone’s fingernails need pulling out. (Not mine, though).

We all ought to know what we’re only supposed to be receiving this stuff if we’ve previously told someone that we want to have it sent to us. But is it worth responding to these texts? I’ve been chatting to some friends about this, and some of them think replying "stop" is a waste of time.

When we search the Information Commissioner’s website for advice on issues such as these, we are left a bit confused. Guidance about What can I do if I’m getting unwanted marketing texts? is as follows:

If you receive marketing by text message which you think breaches the [Privacy & Electronic Communications] Regulations you should write to or email the organisation concerned (remembering to keep a copy of all correspondence). You may also be able to try and opt out from further messages by texting ‘STOP’ to the telephone number or 5-digit short code shown in the text message. Tell the sender about the problem and allow them time to put things right.

If you are unsure who the message comes from or if the message does not come from a company you are familiar with you should not respond to the message as this may confirm our number is live.

If you continue to receive marketing by text message we may be able to help.

So, the ICO advises that you should try and object by texting STOP - unless the text comes from a company you don’t know – such as this one. But if you don’t text STOP, then how will the ICO take your complaint about being sent unsolicited texts seriously?

Recently, the Information Commissioner has been given powers to fine organisations that send such SPAM messages up to £500,000. I wonder whether he’ll be tempted to consider using his powers in this particular case.

One defence the spammers might put is that they sent the texts in good faith, and have only continue to send messages to people who have not previously objected to receiving them. After all, if the recipients didn’t reply STOP, perhaps they wanted the messages to continue. You can imagine the arguments.

Another defence the spammers might put is that they think that the Commissioner really ought to reissue his guidance on how he will impose any fines, and have this guidance approved by the Secretary of State and laid before Parliament, before he can issue fines to people like spammers. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be cricket. But should the ICO play by these rules, when taking action against those who ignore any rules? I think not. I think the Commissioner should consider a gamble – throw away the regulatory red tape and go for the spammers where it hurts – their bank balances.

Anyway, what I would like to see is lots of people replying STOP, and then complaining as hard as they can to the Commissioner when (we know that) their objections will be ignored.

My cunning plan is to get customers really upset about their inability to stop this awful behaviour – and to make their angst known, in very forceful terms, to the regulator. I disagree with the view that people should not bother sending a text to stop more texts from being sent, “because the bad guys probably won’t take any notice of you”. I think it’s more helpful if large numbers of recipients complain to the Commissioner after having continually taken some steps themselves to stop the mischief. That ought to get him to act, as he will have even more evidence of angry customers– which is what he will need if he is serious about imposing a large fine on the spammer. If the Commissioner feels that customers have not done much themselves to protect themselves, he may not feel entitled to impose a huge fine on the bad guys.

The recently deceased peace campaigner Brian Haw set up camp opposite Parliament and refused to relinquish his patch for nearly 10 years. Perhaps, when Glastonbury’s out of the way, a few of the more intrepid privacy campaigners can set up an anti-SPAM camp opposite the Commissioner's office in Wilmslow. They could demand action, and only move on when these miscreants have been properly dispensed with.

And, while the protesters are enjoying the delights of the Commissioner’s car park, they can while away the days by filling in the ICO’s on-line complaint form at .

Question 12 asks: has the receipt of these messages had any practical effect on you? (eg prevented urgent messages from being received, incurred costs etc) Please be as creative as you can. We could get the Commissioner to award prizes for the best answers. The complainants can then either email the completed form to the Commissioner at, or, as they will be there, they could pop a copy through the letter box.

And, please feel free to cross out the bit in the declaration you are asked to sign which explains that “I ... understand that you have no powers to punish an organisation for any likely breach of the regulations and that you cannot award compensation”. Tell the Commissioner to ignore that bit, and just go for it.

Remember that in most cases the ICO will destroy the documents you send them after 6 months. So if you don’t get a reply within say 4 months, send them a quick reminder. You don’t want your precious complaint to go undealt with, do you?