There has been a great deal of interest in UK mobile phone number harvesting and it is increasingly being referred to in the mobile industry as “the next subscription scam”.

I thought it would be useful to outline what the scam is, the problems being caused and the steps Bango thinks need to be taken quickly, before it gets out of control.

The Scam
When someone visits an internet site, there is no way that the site owner can find out their email address or the phone number of their broadband line without being given the information by the user. In the same way, users browsing the mobile web do not expect their identity to be revealed to the sites they visit.

But mobile operators connect phone users to the internet.  Whilst they know the subscriber’s phone number they generally don?t provide it to third parties, except under strict confidentiality requirements, on a case by case basis. However, in recent months, the UK mobile operators have started to provide phone numbers (MSISDN) to accredited intermediaries, to enable them to send premium text messages to users and facilitate payment for content. 

A set of  “scheme rules” known as Payforit that mandates that the MSISDN is only provided to content providers that have user permission is currently being established by the UK operators. Unfortunately, citing technical difficulties and other reasons, some accredited intermediaries have started to simply pass on phone numbers in breach of the guidelines. 

This has in turn led to the problems that were foreseen by the operators when they devised the Payforit scheme rules.  Many thousands of users have already visited mobile web sites that have harvested their phone number.  And just like valid email addresses, these phone numbers have considerable value for marketing purposes.

The classic scenario is that a content provider buys popular search terms in Google Mobile Search. When users click on a link, the content provider harvests the user’s phone number, which they could then sell on to third parties. 

A typical top slot in Google Mobile search for a popular term like “ringtone”, “porn” or “free” might cost around £1.00 a click – because the content provider can make a return by selling content for more than that value. A harvester will actually sell the content and then use the phone number for further marketing to that user, or sell on the phone number to others, with an indication of what that user is looking for. 
The return on this is obviously much higher than the simple content sale, so the harvesters are able to out-bid the clean suppliers.

The Benefits of the Scam
Interestingly, the short term gains can be significant for all the parties – except possibly the end user:

– The content provider sells more
– The intermediary gets more traffic by bending / breaking the   scheme rules
– The operator participates in more billing and gets more data traffic and more message traffic
– Google gets higher sales values for its keywords

This makes the motivation to stamp out the abuse or comply with the rules much lower.

The scam appears at the moment to be most popular for users seeking out adult content, perhaps because the likelihood of complaints is much less than with ringtones etc. However, it is possible that many of the phone numbers that are being harvested are those of children ? this has the potential to open up a legal minefield.

The Solution
The Payforit Scheme rules state that:  “Merchants wishing to use an MSISDN (phone number) for marketing purposes must only do so based on the consents obtained from the Payment and Subscription Confirmation pages presented and accepted by the consumer” and “Accredited Payment Intermediaries must log all consumer consents and ensure that the information is auditable.”

Unfortunately, since the phone numbers are being passed to content providers without consent of the consumer, once those numbers have passed from one content provider to another, it is impossible to track down the original source of the number.

Vodafone took steps to stop the scam when it surfaced last year:
however since that time it appears that the problem has become more widespread – across many mobile operators and with many intermediaries.

For information on Payforit