ACMA Requires Telcos to Identify, Trace, and Block SMS scams

ACMA requires telcos to identify, trace, and block SMS scams

New rules could reduce the number of scam text messages.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) will require telcos to identify, trace, and block SMS messages from scammers. The new rule goes into effect on Tuesday, 18th of July, and requires all telcos to comply or face up to $250,000 in fines.

The ACMA’s new rule comes with SMS scams rising steadily over the years, with an even sharper increase this year. And while scam calls received attention from authorities last year, the new rule indicates that text scams are now also receiving attention.

In this article, we’ll discuss the issue of SMS scams and how the new rule could help keep you safe from falling victim.

What are SMS scams?

By reading our article about spoofing phone numbers, you can better understand what phone and SMS scams are, how they work, and how to avoid falling victim. But we’ll briefly summarize how such scams work here.

Scammers can mask their actual phone numbers whenever they place a call. But masking isn’t effective because many people avoid phone calls whenever the caller ID displays an “Unknown” caller.

As a result, scammers go a step further by spoofing other people’s phone numbers. For instance, a scammer overseas can call you with a phone number local to Australia – or maybe even your city or town. This increases the likelihood that you would answer the call and fall victim to whatever ploy the scammer orchestrates.

SMS scams are similar. The scammer sends an official-looking text message with a spoofed number. Sometimes, the scammer might use alphanumeric text to replace their phone number. The text message will usually include a link, which, if clicked, takes the victim to a fraudulent website to collect personal information or install malware for further mischief.

Sometimes, the text message disappears when you click the link, making the scammer harder to trace. And because people prefer texts to calls these days, SMS scams have become an easier way for scammers to lure victims.

Examples of scam text messages

The latest SMS scam emerged last month, informing the phone user that they had come in contact with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. The fake message appears to come from Medicare and asks the user to order a free PCR test kit by clicking on a link.

SMS scams

Scam text message. src

Clicking on the link takes the user to a fake website. In the Medicare example, the website will be a fake Australian government website where you’d have to enter your details before receiving your “free” COVID-19 test kit. Of course, this is all a ploy to gather personal information like your bank or credit card details to steal those details or your money. 

According to Services Australia, these new SMS scams impersonate the Australian government, Medicare, and myGov. However, remember that this is only the latest trend – in reality, scammers can impersonate other reputable entities to steal your personal information and money.

A typical example is a delivery scam where the criminal sends a text message claiming you weren’t available when they tried to deliver a parcel. The text typically includes a link that, when clicked, downloads malicious software on your device.

And another example is the popular NBN scam, which led to almost 6,500 reports to Scamwatch last year and resulted in $1.4 million in losses. The NBN scam involves a phone call where the caller informs you that your NBN connection will immediately be disconnected if you don’t do something about it – like send money.

SMS scams are up this year

Australia is one of the most targeted countries for scams. The latest Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) annual Target Scams report Australians lost over $2 billion to scammers last year alone. This latest figure more than doubled the previous year, which saw scams totaling $850 million.

A small piece of last year’s $2 billion fraud pie went to SMS scams – Aussies lost $10 million to scam texts the previous year. While $10 million might seem small compared to last year’s $2 billion scam total, it is significant and alarming for SMS scams. Why? Because it doesn’t include spam calls, phone scams, or other fraudulent/unethical calls – it is a $10 million problem from text messages alone.

And what’s even more alarming is the increase – halfway through this year, Aussies have already lost more than $6.5 million to scam text messages alone. That’s a 188% increase when compared to the same period last year.

How the new rule can help prevent SMS scams

Given the increase in SMS scams, the ACMA now requires telcos to identify, trace, and block scam text messages. Any telco that fails to comply could face fines of up to $250,000.

Telcos must also share information about scams with other telcos and report any identified scams to the authorities. This could help inform telcos and users of criminals’ new scam tactics.

According to ACMA Chair Nerida O’Loughlin, last year’s rules targeted fraudulent phone calls, reducing phone scams by “an estimated half a billion… over the last 16 months.” Ms. O’Loughlin has hopes that the latest SMS rules will have a similar effect.

What to do if you receive a scam text message

The ACMA isn’t alone in the fight against scammers. After receiving 11,000 complaints which totaled $60 million in losses last year, Telstra began working on a scam filter. While that’s a noble step, your best defense is usually one mounted by yourself.

Here are a few tips to prevent becoming the victim of an SMS scam:

  • Be wary about any text message you receive from a number you don’t recognize.
  • If there is a tone of urgency, always call the company or government agency directly to verify.
  • Double check every claim made in the text message by independently visiting the website without clicking on the attached link.
  • Always avoid clicking any links – browse the website manually.
  • Avoid text messages with spelling and grammar errors – many phone/SMS scammers originate from outside Australia, where English might not be their first language.
  • Head to https://www.donotcall.gov.au and add your phone number to the ‘Do Not Call’ register.
  • Download anti-virus software to protect your device from any malware.
  • Finally, report all scams to your telco and the ACCC’s Scamwatch.

Final words

Every Australian knows how annoying these scam calls and texts are. Just a couple of years ago, you might have gotten one scam call per month. However, the problem has grown to the extent that it sometimes feels like the only time a call comes it’s from a scammer. Not only does it disturb your day and impact your productivity, but for some (especially older Australians), scam calls and texts can be a portal to a confusing world in which they are separated from their money.

It’s excellent news that the ACMA has stepped in and implemented a scheme that will at least reduce the impact of this problem. It’s a real shame they had to. No one has better information about what is happening on their network than the phone companies. Without having seen their internal reporting, it’s hard to condemn them. But it’s also hard not to fault telcos for failing to act quickly and only doing so after a mandate from the ACMA.

Neil Aitken

Having worked in 3 countries for 4 telcos on both voice and data products, Neil is in a position to give you the inside track. Get beyond the marketing messages to the best plan for you.