Tue, Feb 18, 2003 - Page 10 News List

Spam phone calls abound

NEW GAME IN TOWN Organized-crime groups are constantly coming up with ways to bilk mobile phone users out of money by getting them to respond to messages

By Annabel Lue  /  STAFF REPORTER

Actress Hsiao Chang displays a Dbtel cellphone made of 18K gold and decorated with five-carat diamonds worth NT$1 million (US$29,000) in Taipei last month. With the highest cellphone use in the world, Taiwanese are prime targets for messaging scams.

PHOTO: REUTERS

A consumer advocacy group yesterday urged the public to be wary of unsolicited short messages on cellphones, as returning these calls may result in high phone charges.

"Over last few months an increasing number of consumers complained that they have received fraudulent ads or sexually explicit messages on their cellphones," said Cheng Jen-hung (程仁宏), secretary general of the Consumers' Foundation (消基會).

Chen said that the messages were an invasion of privacy.

According to Chen, a popular message says, "Hi, I am your old friend, long time no see ... you can reach me via the phone number."

Another scam specifically targets males.

"Ever since my boyfriend and I broke up, I've lost the happy feeling of making love with someone. A one-night stand won't cost you anything ... please call me."

But a return call to the attached phone number will transfer the caller to an overseas line, costing up to several thousand NT dollars.

"Mobile phones are very convenient communications devices, but they can also be very dangerous when criminal groups make use of them," he said.

Short-messaging services (SMS) are major gateways that allow companies and individuals to send messages from a computer or cellphone to other cellphones.

According to the Directorate General of Telecommunications, Taiwan's mobile-penetration rate is over 100 percent, surpassing Luxembourg to rank as the world's highest.

A National Police Administration official said the spread of unwanted messages is "rampant."

"It's overwhelming ... over the last two months we received over a thousand complaints regarding spam messages," the administration's section chief, Huang Wan-fa (黃萬發), said.

Police have disconnected nearly 900 suspect phone lines between December and January in an effort to stem the flow of unwanted calls, he said. Huang said not to dial unrecognized "missed calls," and specifically advised against calling numbers with the 0941 or 0951 prefix. Calls to these numbers will result in an NT$500 charge per call.

The Consumers' Foundation also urged the public to protect personal-contact information and to be alert when receiving short messages from unfamiliar sources.

"Consumers should notify mobile-service operators or the police to investigate when their's a problem," Chen said.

But Huang said that keeping one's cellphone number secure is no assurance against unwanted calls or messages.

"Crime organizations send out messages randomly to a large amount of numbers," Huang said.

Mobile-service operators should also make better efforts to block spam, he said.

"A party trying to send out short messages has to go through an operators' mobile network," Huang said. "Mobile-service operators should actively block these kinds of transmissions."

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