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Telstra rolls out SMS scam filter in response to rise in questionable mobile text messages

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Telstra is responding to a rise in fraudulent messages on its network with a filter designed to block texts before they reach mobile devices.

Scammers are increasingly targeting Australians with dubious malicious texts that use a range of clever tricks to trick people into handing over sensitive information, even to send money.

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) ScamWatch, last year Australians lost $100 million to phone scams – that is, calls and texts – compared to $48 million dollars in 2020.

According to Telstra, reports of malicious text messages on Android devices rose from 50 in 2020 to 11,000 the following year.

In the past year, he says he blocked more than 100 million fraudulent calls.

So how does the scam SMS filter work and why has it taken so long for text messages to get a technology email has had for years?

The filter automatically analyzes the content and origin of the text

Telstra hasn’t said exactly how the technology works, other than that it automatically scans text messages for suspicious content and characteristics.

In a post on its website announcing the filter, Telstra said:

“We apply our knowledge of what fraudulent text messages look like to block them at the network level.

“Automatic machine scanning selects suspicious content such as malicious links and combines it with other patterns and characteristics such as time, sender, number of messages sent and recipient.”

It’s also not yet clear how effective the filter will be.

Telstra says it tested the feature in a pilot program with 2,500 employees over the past three months, and participants reported “a reduction in the number of fraudulent SMS messages they received”.

Other networks overseas have reported success with scam filters.

EE, a UK telecommunications provider, introduced a spam filter in July 2021.

In the three months that followed, he blocked more than 42 million spam and fraudulent SMS messages and saw an 85% drop in customer reports of fraudulent text messages.

Telstra says it will not block emergency alerts, government services or “commercial messages from banks and other large companies”.(Getty Images: Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket)

Paul Haskell-Dowland, a computer and security expert from Edith Cowan University, said the filter would work like those that filter out spam from your inbox.

“It will look at message volumes to see if thousands of messages are coming from a single mobile number,” he said.

“And it will examine the content of the message and determine if it is a format that it has seen before and classified as spam.”

Messages that prove difficult to classify automatically can be checked manually, he added.

If that happens, Telstra said, “recipient details will remain hidden.”

Why did it take so long for text messages to pass a spam filter?

Although welcome, Telstra’s spam filter is an “incredibly late decision”, said Professor Haskell-Dowland.

More than a decade ago, spam cluttering inboxes had a “very real impact” on business, while the recent rise in malicious text messages has generally been an “end-user problem” – that’s i.e. a problem for individual customers, but not for the companies themselves.

Eventually, however, mounting public and government pressure led telecoms providers to do something about the problem, Prof Haskell-Dowland said.

“I suspect there was no commercial will to fix the problem,” he said.

In December 2020, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) established an industry code aimed at reducing the number of fraudulent calls.

The Fraudulent Call Reduction Code, developed in partnership with the telecommunications industry, defines processes to identify, track, block and otherwise disrupt fraudulent calls.

This was a direct recommendation from the ACMA Action plan against scamspublished in November 2019.

This plan included a proposal to develop enforceable obligations for telecommunications providers to “implement and update SMS filtering technology” by the second quarter of 2020.

The ACCC has welcomed Telstra’s announcement today of an SMS anti-spam filter.

“The ACCC is pleased to see providers taking action to meet their obligations under the Call Fraud Reduction Code,” a spokesperson said.

“We will continue to monitor the rates of SMS scams received by the public to assess the effectiveness of the measures.”

How serious is the spam wave?

ACCC’s ScamWatch saw a 124% increase in SMS scam reports in the 12 month period to February 2022.

During this period, reported financial losses due to SMS scams have increased more than fivefold.

The actual figure is likely higher, an ACCC spokesperson said.

“Based on previous research by the ACCC, under-reporting is prevalent in all types of scams, so we can only assume that there are many more people affected by these scams and are not reporting them. not.”

Losses from SMS scams are dwarfed by those from phone calls.

Of the A$100 million lost to phone scams in 2021, SMS scams accounted for 10%.

The pandemic has seen more people working from home and isolating themselves from those around them, which has left them vulnerable to scammers, experts say.

Will this prevent politicians from sending me election text messages?

During the last federal election, Clive Palmer sent unsolicited text messages to millions of voters as part of his campaign.

An unsolicited text message from Clive Palmer's United Australia Party
Do you remember these? Although annoying to some, they are perfectly legal.(ABC News)

With another election soon to be announced, you may be wondering if the new filter will stop these texts, or those from another politician or party.

The short answer is that it won’t, Professor Haskell-Dowland said.

Federal Legislation Governing Spam via electronic communications enjoys an exemption for political campaign material, as long as it is not of a commercial nature.

“Clive Palmer’s posts fall into the campaign category, so it’s perfectly legal to send what many would consider spam.”

What if I’m not with Telstra?

If you are with a third-party provider that uses the Telstra network, your messages may still be filtered, depending on the agreement between Telstra and the provider.

Third-party providers are those that offer a telecommunications service but do not have their own physical network infrastructure. They are rather grafted onto one of the Telstra, Optus or Vodafone networks.

If you’re with Optus or Vodafone, chances are you’ll soon have a spam filter, Prof Haskell-Dowland said.

“I think what we’re going to see is a cascading effect now that a major vendor has introduced a filter.

“Over time this will become the norm, just as it has been with email.”

A Vodafone spokesperson said the company introduced a “sophisticated SMS firewall” in 2020.

“Our system blocked more than 522 million fraudulent text messages in the past year alone,” they said.

“During the same period, we also identified and prevented more than 26 million fraudulent calls from reaching our customers.”

Optus said it already has “advanced filtering and machine learning in [its] SMS systems”.

“While we don’t speak publicly about our security measures, we’re excited that more of the industry is putting similar systems in place,” a spokesperson said.

“Since December 2020, Optus has already blocked over 230 million fraudulent calls.”