Take care not to be stung by scary SMS Wasp

Cell phone. File picture
Cell phone. File picture
Image: pexels.com

“And I don’t even watch soccer!” That was the ultimate kick in the teeth for MTN subscriber and Cape Town-based CEO Gareth, when he spotted an SMS informing him that he had subscribed to a Soccer TV service, at R2,02 a day.

Gareth – who requested that his surname not be revealed – was adamant he had no idea when or how he was alleged to have subscribed, or which company would be getting his money, via that MTN “value-added” billing.

“I contacted MTN and they said it was a third party and that they had no say in the matter,” he said.

“I was told I could cancel it, but they couldn’t help me track down the company responsible for activating the subscription.”

Gareth is among the many South Africans to have been “stung” by a “Wasp” or “Wireless Application Service Provider” and the services they provide – subscriptions to extras such as games and horoscopes, with content ranging from porn to sport.

For those subscribers the socalled “value-added” services were merely serving to gobble their airtime or bloat their bills.

The subscriptions are fairly easily cancelled and all the networks have introduced mechanisms for subscribers to do this themselves. But getting refunds requires more perseverance than most people have.

Both Waspa – the Wasp’s regulatory authority – and the networks have introduced “double opt-ins” as a consumer protection against unauthorised subscriptions.

Here’s how that is supposed to work: before any subscription is activated on a subscriber’s SIM, the subscriber is supposed to get an SMS, with the subscription details and cost, and asked to confirm whether or not they authorised the subscription.

I asked MTN why Gareth didn’t get that “just checking” SMS from the network.

The response I got is a cautionary tale for anyone who browses online.

Jacqui O’Sullivan, MTN SA’s corporate affairs’ executive, said it appeared that Gareth may have clicked on a banner “linked to a bot which mimics the behaviour of the customer and approves the opt-in and double opt in requests without the customer knowing”.

“Thus the customer was subscribed as the system picked up the opt-in and double opt-in event as if the customer had consented to it.”

How scary is that? Waspa announced this month that the association had updated its code of conduct to better address "potential challenges posed by malware and ransomware inadvertently downloaded from app stores by unsuspecting mobile users”.

MTN meanwhile, is busy introducing several new ways to monitor and protect consumers from “these unscrupulous fraudulent subscriptions”, O’Sullivan said.

They include:

● Enabling subscribers to limit the amount of their airtime to be spent on these “value added” Wasp services each month;

● Implementing the Icasa premium rates services blocking functionality that blocks ALL charges requested by premium rated services and content services;

● Implementing clear and simplified short codes enabling subscribers to unsubscribe from any content services themselves; and

● Adding fraud protection on all banners promoting "rich media services".

A senior MTN employee would liaise with Gareth, O’Sullivan said.

I suspect many a reader’s eyes would have lit up on reading the words “block all charges” relating to those Wasp services.

Waspa vice-chairman James McNab confirmed that subscribers with any network can request what he termed a “masterblock” on these add-on subscriptions and their costs.

I can’t say that I’ve seen that networks going big on advertising that, which is why I intend to spread the word. A lot.

Here’s how you find out whether you’re subscribed to a Wasp service, and cancel it yourself, if you want out:

● VODACOM: SMS “STOP ALL” to 31050

● MTN: *141*5#

● CELL C: *133*1#

● TELKOM: Log into portal “Manage Subscriptions”. In short, if you’re worried about bots pretending to be you and subscribing you to services you neither want nor need, get into the habit of doing that DIY Wasp subscription check once a week, and if you want that ultimate protection, request your network to implement a “master block”, making sure you aren’t ever billed for any of those subscriptions.

● To lodge a complaint with Waspa, go to www.waspa.org.za and look for its complaint form.