WASHINGTON The Federal Trade Commission said Thursday it had filed eight lawsuits in federal courts around the country against companies it accused of ordering or engineering the sending of hundreds of millions of scam text messages to mobile phone users.
The text messages, which typically promise gift cards to national chain stores or other prizes, are sent to random phone numbers and usually direct recipients to a website where they are asked for personal information, including Social Security numbers, credit card numbers or other data, FTC officials said.
Rarely, if ever, do consumers receive any actual reward, said C. Steven Baker, the commission's Midwest region director.
Instead of fulfilling the promise of prizes, the websites often take consumers through multiple screens asking for more detailed information or getting them to sign up for free trials of products.
"If any consumer gets that far and actually gets a gift card, it isn't free," Baker said, although he acknowledged the commission was not aware of anyone who had received a promised reward. He spoke to reporters in a teleconference from Chicago.
Roughly 60 percent of mobile phone users have received one or more spam text messages in the last year, he said, and about 15 percent clicked on the link included in the message.
In the eight federal civil cases filed around the country in recent days, the commission named 29 individuals, most of whom worked for companies that were hired to send the text messages. One complaint was filed against operators of a website to which consumers were directed by the messages.
Among the companies named were Superior Affiliate Management, Rentbro, Appidemic, Verma Holdings, AdvertMarketing, Seaside Building Marketing and SubscriberBASE Holdings.
Sending spam messages is prohibited under civil law; other laws are often violated when spam messages are sent to numbers registered in the federal "Do Not Call" registry.
The commission said an additional case charging contempt of court is being pursued against Phillip A. Flora, a serial text spammer who was barred in 2011 from sending unsolicited texts. He faces potential felony charges of violating a federal court order.
The FTC has received at least 50,000 complaints about spam text messages in the last few years, including 20,000 complaints that related to an offer of a free gift. The number of complaints is growing rapidly, however. Baker said the commission received seven times as many complaints in 2012 as it did in 2011.
Officials advised anyone who receives such a message not to click on any link and not to reply to the message. In particular, they said, do not text STOP or a similar direction back to the sender, as is often advised, because that lets the sender know the phone number is real.
Rather, consumers are requested to forward the text message to 7726, which is a central repository for spam messages that has been set up by the cellphone carriers. The message should then be deleted, the officials said.