In a move that everyone in the mobile marketing industry will surely applaud, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has slapped a £440,000 fine on the two owners of Tetrus Telecoms (can't find a website for them, surprisingly - Ed) which has, in the ICO’s words: “plagued the public with millions of unlawful spam texts over the past three years”.
Texts such as: “CLAIM TODAY you may be entitled to £3500 for the accident you had. To claim free, reply CLAIM to this message. To opt out text STOP. Thank you”. “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 “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”.
Tetrus made its money by selling on the mobile numbers of the people who responded to its spam texts to Claims Management firms for between £3 and £5. They in turn could make money from the lead by claiming compensation (for PPI cases) and taking a 25 per cent cut of the payout, or selling the number on to a Personal Injury Solicitor. According to the ICO, numbers sold on at this stage would command a fee of “over £500”. We're currently looking into the legality, or otherwise, of this process of selling on numbers originally procured through the spam texts.
The company is jointly owned by Christopher Niebel and Gary McNeish. The ICO says it became aware of Tetrus Telecoms after receiving intelligence in May 2011 that the company was sending huge volumes of unsolicited text messages from offices in Stockport and Birmingham, without the consent of the recipient, and without identifying the sender – both of which are legal requirements under the PECR. Any replies were then used to generate leads that were sold to other companies at a considerable profit.
The ICO’s investigation included raids at the company’s Stockport premises, in August 2011, and the Manchester home of Niebel, in February this year. The evidence obtained showed that Tetrus was using unregistered pay as you go SIM cards to send out as many as 840,000 illegal text messages a day, and on the back of that, generating a daily income of between £7,000 and £8,000.
The company was set up in December 2009. The ICO says it believes the two directors have made hundreds of thousands of pounds profit during the course of the three years since. Niebel has now been ordered to pay a penalty of £300,000, while McNeish has been fined £140,000.
This is the first time that the ICO has used its power to issue a monetary penalty for a serious breach of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations Act (PECR) since these powers were approved in January 2012.
The ICO says it is also currently considering issuing penalties to three other companies believed to be acting in breach of the regulations as the office continues its crackdown on the illegal marketing industry.
Ciaran Bradley, VP of Handset Security at AdaptiveMobile, has welcomed the ICO’s move, but believes the battle is not yet won. He said: “What starts as an annoyance can very quickly turn into fraud. We’ve seen this happen in America over the last few years, and with 60 per cent of the British population having received unsolicited messages, this is becoming an important issue for the mobile ecosystem.
“The ICO fining offenders, such as Tetrus Telecoms, is an important step in deterring SMS spammers. But the fines will most likely drive spammers to send texts from abroad, into the UK. To counteract this, mobile operators need to ensure they have the most effective technology in place to protect their customers from spam. We need to give consumers the tools to report spam easily and work together as an industry to share data on the culprits across borders. All parts of the illegal spam ecosystem, including those who use information collected as a result of spam should also be penalised. If we act now, there is no reason why we cannot get rid of this headache entirely and preserve a channel which is very much trusted by the nation.”
Last week, AdaptiveMobile released the results of a study conducted by YouGov which revealed that 148.43m spam texts are received by consumers in Great Britain every month.
“It’s vitally important to stamp out text spam," said Julian Hucker, CEO of UK-based business SMS company Esendex. "Juniper’s forecasts show that revenues from SMS operators will dwarf other messaging methods because of its ubiquity, reach and reliability. Unlike email for instance, which suffers as a result of huge volumes of spam, SMS messages are trusted and therefore it feels like a greater violation when an unwanted message is received. We definitely want to see the integrity of SMS preserved and welcome the efforts of the ICO to stamp out spam messaging.”