WARNING! Your cellphone is a pickpocket


Vodacom Cellphone subscribers are being charged for unsolicited “content services” – despite the network provider’s claim that it adheres to the “industry norm” that new content services must be solicited by the subscriber. Vodacom, like other network providers, is making a fortune from content providers, or WASPs (Wireless Application Service Providers), which piggyback on the networks.

The cellphone industry claims that there are as many subscribers as there are people in South Africa – around 45 million. It’s therefore fair to say that South Africans are shelling out hundreds of millions, if not billions, of rand each year for content services alone. A substantial portion of this loot appears to be  going to content providers registered offshore. 
 
Which is perhaps why, for weeks, Vodacom ducked noseweek’s questions about how they came to collect R165 from subscriber Marie Ensink (66), for an internet connection to a porn site, that she didn’t ask for.  
 
Mrs Ensink signed a Vodacom contract on 8 September last year. Six months later, on 8 May 2009 (at 2.57pm), she received an unsolicited text message, which read: “Ur Adult video here!” Wondering how the sender had got hold of her number, Mrs Ensink deleted the message. A couple of hours later another SMS arrived: “Welcome 2 African Gsm.VC! Content on its way! Click on it 2 download! [...] sms STOP to 37425 unsub. Subscription service R15/3day. 16+.” 
 
As she had not subscribed to any services, Ensink deleted this SMS too. As she told noseweek: “You only unsubscribe from something you have subscribed to. There was no way I was going to request such a service – I don’t even know how to send a text message.” Over the next few weeks, Ensink received several more such messages, each containing a link to an internet porn site. She deleted them and complained to her local Vodacom shop. Staff there were unable to stop the SMSs from coming in, but finally assured her that the “content service” would be discontinued at the end of May. It was. But when the monthly bill arrived it showed that Ensink had to pay R165 for content services. 
 
When noseweek contacted Vodacom, the provider produced the log of Ensink’s cell transactions – which indeed confirmed, as she’d claimed, that she hadn’t sent a single SMS. It did show that on 8 May Ensink had received two messages from Mira Networks.
 
Mira themselves had another version of events. A Mira consultant, Princess, claimed in an interview with noseweek that Ensink had sent an SMS on May 8, requesting what’s known in the industry as “erotic content”. To prove it, Princess sent noseweek the log of Ensink’s transactions – which only served to affirm that it was Mira that had initiated communication with Ensink and not the other way round. The Mira transaction log also showed that each time Ensink’s phone received an SMS from Mira she was billed 1.5 Euros (by Vodacom), without any attempt on her part to access the link sent to her. When noseweek pointed out to Princess that Mira had contacted Ensink first, she forwarded an email which, she said, came from Linguistic Mobile. It claimed that on 21 April Marie Ensink had accessed an online Google advert for Linguistic Mobile, which “promotes cell offers for the adult and non-adult market”. 
 
The email further claims: “The user in question [Ensink] specifically requested adult content. This request led to the user’s number being added to the promotions database. This was 100% free, no cost was incurred, and the promotions are free to receive.” All of which is highly improbable, if not downright nonsense, ie: simply another ploy to avoid responsibility. Investigations showed that Bestcellpromos, the internet domain specified in the Linguistic Mobile email, was only registered (by Toronto-based software company Tucows Inc) on 21 April 2009 – the very day that Ensink was alleged to have accessed it. This, as IT specialist Patrick Wright of Rocksolid Systems tells noseweek, is extremely unlikely: “After registration of a domain, it takes up to 48 hours to point to a server.” It also usually takes days for an ad application to be approved by Google. Furthermore, Marie Ensink herself claims that she doesn’t even use a computer, never mind indulge herself in surfing the internet for expensive porn for her cell phone.  
Vodacom subscriber Marie Ensink
 
Asked to provide proof from Google that Ensink, or anyone else, had clicked on the Bestcellpromos ad on that day, Mira Networks’ customer services director Charlotte Endres simply passed the buck: “Our role is to provide connectivity for content providers into all the networks in SA. We do not sell services and don't get directly involved with the creation of services and we do not advertise any SMS service. That is the responsibility of our clients, the content providers. All our content clients are WASPA [Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association – the industry watchdog] registered members and it is their responsibility to ensure that the services they offer are compliant and above-board.”
 
She then asked noseweek to direct all further queries to Linguistic Mobile Services – which turned out to be a non-registered entity bearing a UK address. An internet domain, linguisticmobile.com, is registered (as of September 2008), to James McAteer of Bedfordshire, Great Britain. The domain registration gives a false telephone number – one never allocated say British Telecom.
 
Oddly, minutes after noseweek received Mira’s email, one arrived from James McAteer himself, written from Linguistic Mobile: “I would like to make it clear that Linguistic Mobile Services are not the company who are advertising these services – it is a customer of ours, Universal Mobile. For the record I am happy, from looking at the customer’s logs, that [Universal Mobile] have not contravened any rules or regulations that are set out within the WASPA code of conduct, and if this were the case Linguistic Mobile would not be dealing with them.”
 
By now, responsibility for who had solicited business from Ensink had been displaced from Vodacom to Mira to Linguistic Mobile, all of whom claimed that they had only passed on someone else’s messages, and that Ensink herself had solicited the content. Universal Mobile was indicated as the agent providing the actual content. 
 
Vodacom’s view in Ensink’s case was put to noseweek by their chief communications officer, Dot Field: “Our initial investigations of this matter have shown that Mira Networks made initial contact by sending an SMS on 8 May at 14:57, and the subscriber opted in at 14:58. [At} 16:23 the confirmation for subscription was sent to the subscriber with an option to opt out but she did not unsubscribe. Next she started receiving the (9 x R15 = R135) content until she was unsubscribed on the 1st June 2009.”
 
Field explained that content is primarily provided by third parties: “The WASPs are responsible for creating the information that is delivered to the subscribers, which is referred to as content. They make use of Vodacom's cellular network infrastructure and billing relationship with the subscriber to deliver and bill for these services. As such, Vodacom does not carry nor distribute pornographic material – this is done by the WASP.”
 
Why then did Vodacom charge Ensink R165 for content services – R30 more than the actual Mira bill? No response. When noseweek asked Vodacom to explain why there is no monitoring of what gets sold as content on their network, the reply was that this would infringe on the right to privacy of its clients and customers. In other words: if Vodacom may not listen in to your conversations, it also may not regulate what is being sold to you through its network. Nor is any system in place for checking that porn is being sold only to adults. 
 
The so called “industry norms” for WASPs are contained in the guidelines established by WASPA. Section 5.2 of the document clarifies that if a messsage has not been requested by its recipient, then it is unsolicited. In other words the sender is doing the soliciting, not the receiver. It says that: 
 
“Any commercial message is considered unsolicited unless;
 
  •  the recipient has requested the message
  •  the recipient has a direct and recent (within the last six months) commercial relationship with the message originator and would reasonably expect to receive marketing communications from the originator; or
  •  the organisation supplying the originator with the recipient’s contact information has the recipient’s explicit consent to do so.”
But, as Ensink’s story shows, in practice a WASP can send an unsolicited messsage to a potential customer, then bill them for an unsolicited service when they “opt in” – by ignoring the message! Then, when challenged, the WASP, and the network carrying the message, are able to pass on the responsibility to whoever is next down the line – until it reaches some anonymous figure who says they’re convinced that no-one is to blame. 
 
It appears that pre-paid subscribers are even being hit when they don’t reply to messages because they don’t have air time. When they later top up their account, the amount “owing” to the WASP is instantly deducted. 
 
Vodacom does not provide a breakdown in its financial statements for content services revenue – because that would reveal the scale of the racke. It’s believed that networks retain around 50% of what they’re billing on behalf of WASPs.  The industry watchdog, WASPA, tells noseweek that “the affected party” can file a complaint with the association, which would then investigate. WASPA promised to provide a comprehensive response, but at the time of going to print, they had not done so. Mira Networks claims to be one of Vodacom’s “top SMS aggregators”. Mira would not disclose their fee for distributing pornographic content to local cellphones. Nor would they say how they obtain the cell numbers to which they send unsolicited material. (Also see nose114 Writing's on the wall for SMS greed.)
 
  • Dot Field, Vodacom’s chief communications officer, informs noseweek that, on further investigation, “it was found that the proof from the WASP that the customer opted in or requested the content, was not adequate”. Vodacom has suspended the service of Linguistic Mobile, pending the outcome of an investigation by WASPA. Field says that in June a new rule was introduced in the WASPA code of conduct “that requires that any request from a customer to join a subscription service must be an independent transaction, with the specific intention of subscribing to a service”. 

 

Keywords:
Mira Networks
South Africa
Vodacom
Cellular Telephone
Mobile Phone
Disappearing Airtime
Fraud
Content Providers
Erotic Content
Porn
Linguistic Mobile
Bestcellpromos
Waspa
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Reader's comments

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Submitted by : Donovan Jackson of Weltevreden Park on 2009-08-19 13:14:18
Mr. Nose will be pleased to, er, nose, that the head of Vodacom's WASP business was toting a copy of nothing other that...you guessed it, NOSE118, about with him in the office. Bit of a worry down there in the trenches, I gather.
 
Submitted by : Graham Sessions of Durban on 2009-08-17 16:22:21
Another organisation by the name of Sybase Tel 0861116666 has also got onto the band wagon and I have skimmed my account.
 
Submitted by : CL RUST of KEMPTON PARK on 2009-08-10 15:37:50
I am an MTN prepaid subscriber and sometimes receive up to two of the
unsolicited 'Xclusive Erotic.....' and SA Aduly Network..' or 'Sexy Sophie a.....' etc which I have never opened or accessed. How do I find out if my prepaid account has been debited for these. Also, do I write a letter to MTN to block these in future?

If I have been debited for these you are kindly to add me to your victims list for the class action.

Celeste

Editor's Note
Celeste,
It's highly likely that you've been charged repeatedly for the crap. The easiest way of knowing is loading your line with specific amount then avoid making any calls for a week. You thereafter check your balance... you'd then know whether you've been paying for these 'contents'. Alternatively, you call MTN and request to know how many content services you could be subscribed to. You then take it from there.
 
Submitted by : of KEMPTON PARK on 2009-08-07 10:39:54
Prior to receiving your latest edition as a company we had been endeavoring to remove ”Content Services” charges from various phones contracted to Vodacom which some of our staff had been duped into agreeing too by not responding to Vodacom’s initial SMS which came at a cost, whilst others had knowingly enter into these agreements. With each turn it became harder to rectify, then this week all of sudden the canceling of such agreements was greatly simplified. I can only presume it was your ”Noseweek” front page article that assisted in this regard – great work and a good mag.

Editor's Note
We are glad to have been of some help
 
Submitted by : Anthony Krijger of Westville on 2009-08-04 08:48:15
Thanks for highlighting these rip-offs. I have often questioned Vodacom about my account, especially when I travel to places like Phillipines and I receive sms after sms "welcoming me to Manila" and asking me to use their services. I get billed for all these by Vodacom, but they ignore my billing queries. I also am billed for international calls and the numbers are not listed. I pay for itemised billing so when I query this it is also conveniently ignored.

Editor's Note
When you pay for itemised billing, all out-going calls (voice and text) must be listed. You pay for it, they must provide it.
 
Submitted by : of Westville on 2009-08-01 23:21:57
My wife loves competitions and often is successful. She was caught in a negative option scam thanks to Vodacom.

A summary of this ongoing saga which I am persuing in an attempt to get some answers to my simple questions is available.

As to what I think, it is quite clear that Vodacom, and probably the other "service providers" as well, are facilitators and parties to outright theft in the knowledge that the authorities, who should put a stop to this, are dysfuntional like most government departments.
 
Submitted by : Frits bl on 2009-08-01 23:14:37
Excellent article!

We are all very impressed by the quality of investigative journalism and the professional standard of writing.

Thanks for the good work,
 
Submitted by : Scott Cundill of Johannesburg on 2009-07-31 16:02:19
I have just received an sms linking me to a porn site. I did not subscribe to this and expect a fat bill this month for the "service". Think about it - who on Earth would knowlingly pay R15 for an SMS with a link to a porn site??? Just go to Google and get 1.4 trillion for free.

It's a scam, the service providers know about it, profit from it and it will take a revolution to bring it down.
 
Submitted by : Toni Goncalves of Johannesburg on 2009-07-30 22:27:33
I run several MTN contracts and have been a victim of this type of fraud more than once.
Feel free to add me to the class action victims list.
 
Submitted by : Ikaneng Malebye of Groenkloof on 2009-07-30 18:04:34
A friend requested that I help unsubscribe him from some service that he suspected that his kids had subscribed his number to without his consent. On accessing the website, it required a cell number and a password. I opted for the forgotten password link, and the website responded that it didnt have that number on the database. This just confirms the extent of the fraud, in that numbers are most likely just chosen randomly, and each forking out no less than R10/sms for an indefinite period of time. Vodacom must publish how much they get from content.
 
Submitted by : RAY JOHN of Groenkloof on 2009-07-30 15:13:47
I wrote about a complaint I had about Mira Networks on 27 March in your comments column, concerning my young daughter who had her account debited with R50, two months in a row. I really appreciate you taking this story further.

It is incumbent on Vodacom to declare how much money they have made from this service. It is morally repugnant that Vodacom should have made any money at all from these operators. Needless to say my complaints to Vodacom and the regulatory authorities were initially ignored completely and then answered unsatisfactorily. I will keep on though. Thanks once again.

Editor's Note
Note that we are currently collecting victims' details upon a request by an attorney who is considering a class action... you are not alone.

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