Johannesburg - Responding to an SMS that advertises WhatsApp add-ons or updates could cost you hundreds of rands per month.
- WhatsApp SMS spam under investigation
- How to get out of WhatsApp ‘scams’
This is according to IT consultant and prominent technology blogger Liron Segev who has highlighted what he calls just the latest WhatsApp 'scam' to hit South Africa.
It starts with mobile phone users receiving an SMS from a Wireless Application Service Provider (Wasp) saying “you have not updated to the latest WhatsApp Add-ons”. The SMS then prompts the user to ‘click’ - or rather press - on a link.
Segev says “unsuspecting” victims will activate the link, which opens up the phone’s web browser and leads to a page with a big green button that says ‘continue’.
However, the risk is that users may skip over the fine print at the bottom of the web page, which details how the service will deduct R7 per day off their phone bill.
If left unnoticed, this could add over R200 to your phone bill per month. This could help these ‘Wasps’ earn large amounts of money, even if they only reach small numbers of people. In South Africa, WhatsApp has 10 million users alone, according to research from World Wide Worx and Fuseware.
"The issue is you get scams like this which are playing on the masses, sending out millions of these SMSs, hoping that a certain percentage will actually not bother to read,” Segev told Fin24.
"They'll catch you when you're not focusing. You'll put a couple of clicks in; nothing will happen. You'll think nothing of it, but then little amounts of money come off your account without you realising it,” Segev said.
Segev further told Fin24 that this type of SMS sign-up is just one of many as other companies send out text messages prompting users to deactivate or even upgrade WhatsApp.
WhatsApp can only be updated via the Google Play apps market for Android or the Apple App Store.
This WhatsApp premium service charges R7 per day. (Liron Segev)
Ironically, SMS scams such as those highlighted by Segev can be deemed legal, because they inform users of future deductions off their phone bills.
“The crux of the problem is that the companies doing it are actually legally allowed to do this. And they're abiding by the South African spam laws. They say exactly what they're going to do," Segev told Fin24.
"If you read a site, they are honest and they say exactly what they're going to do. You're signing up for a new social network that's premium; that'll you be paying R7 a day for. They say that in black and white: they're not hiding it.
"They're counting on the fact that we don't read things properly. They're counting on the fact that we're busy and all we're going to do is click the continue button but technically they have abided by the rules and regulations, which state that you've got to disclose what your fee is upfront. And they do that; they say R7 a day,” Segev told Fin24.
Section 45 of South Africa’s Electronic Communications and Transactions Act says that “no agreement is concluded where a consumer has failed to respond to an unsolicited communication”.
In a WhatsApp premium service SMS case, simply clicking on the continue button could be classified as a confirmation response.
Meanwhile, Section 69 of South Africa’s new Protection of Personal Information Act has the following to say about “direct marketing by means of unsolicited electronic communications”:
“The processing of personal information of a data subject for the purpose of direct marketing by means of any form of electronic communication, including automatic calling machines, facsimile machines, SMSs or e-mail is prohibited unless the data subject –
a) has given his, her or its consent to the processing; or b) is, subject to subsection
c), a customer of the responsible party.”
With the WhatsApp SMS case, receivers of the communication risk giving over their consent by accepting a link.
The legality around WhatsApp ‘premium’ SMS services become blurry when users decide to opt out.
Segev told Fin24 that SA law can protect consumers in this case if the company operating the SMS premium WhatsApp offering is based in South Africa.
South Africa’s Consumer Protection Act, for instance, says marketers must request the discontinuation of direct marketing communications.
However, if the service uses a server outside South Africa or the company is based overseas, this could complicate matters.
Also, Wireless Access Service Providers (Wasps) could temporarily remove users from their lists but then reinstate them later again. Users even risk being charged a fee to be taken off a list.
"It makes it very, very difficult to invoke South African law against those kinds of systems, and that's why your best form of defence is to be aware of these kinds of situations that are out there,” Segev told Fin24.
Prevention better than cure
To prevent yourself from being a victim of unscrupulous 'Wasps', be wary of SMS messages asking you to click on links.
"Developers would never rely on an SMS system to mass email or SMS everyone to say 'please update your software'," Segev said.
Mobile application updates only take place via app stores such as the Android Play Store and Apple's apps marketplace.
Meanwhile, for those already ensnared by these services, Segev has the following advice.
"The first thing is phone the service provider and say you no longer wish to be part of this particular service and opt out of it immediately.
"Try go to the original website and try opt out there, but they probably will make it so difficult that it becomes a no-end game.
"The main thing is to report it, and keep your eye on it continuously to make sure it doesn't stop for a while and then restart," Segev said.
Segev also told Fin24 that "the more people who report these kinds of scams to our networks, the more action that they are likely to take".
Listen to Fin24 tech editor Gareth van Zyl interview Liron Segev:
Mobile networks respond
Because users opt in to these services, mobile networks could distance themselves from this problem.
Nevertheless, Vodacom and MTN have responded to this issue.
“We will take action against any service provider who attempts to circumvent the rules we put in place to make it clear what a customer is signing up for as well as what the costs of the service are. That action would include revoking the supplier's access to our network and customers,” a Vodacom spokesperson told Fin24.
MTN, meanwhile, told Fin24 that it has tried to put measures in place to protect consumers from risks associated with these services.
“MTN is aware of wireless application service providers (Wasps) that send links to subscribers and unwittingly subscribe them to content services that charge their accounts periodically,” the company told Fin24.
“MTN has introduced a token-based billing system in its quest to protect its customers from roque WASPs. To activate this self-service token, MTN subscribers need to dial *141*5# to view, activate or cancel subscriptions.
“This system will generate a token for customers to opt in and approve their purchase or subscription to any Wasp service before being billed. MTN customers will now have access to the following information before approving a purchase or subscription: the name of the Wasp providing the service; the service or product being purchased; the frequency of the service; the amount to be charged per frequency once agreeing to purchase or subscribe; and disclaimer and/or terms and conditions being agreed to in terms of authorising the purchase or subscription,” MTN said.