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When Cape Town-based photographer Eric Miller found a series of charges on his Autopage account early last year, he immediately queried them. “Autopage said the charges were made by a mobile media and marketing outfit called Opera Interactive, so I contacted them,” he says. “They claimed I’d clicked ‘yes’ to an SMS service – which I know with absolute certainty I didn’t, as I’m particular about avoiding those things.”

What followed Eric calls “a lengthy chase and exchange” with Opera Interactive, and it was only after he threatened to report them to the Wireless Application Service Providers’ Association (WASPA) that he was finally refunded the R1 000+ in unauthorised charges. “I was never able to get from Autopage why they allowed the charges to go through, nor an explanation or apology from Opera Interactive,” he says.

If this sounds familiar, don’t feel alone. With 29 million adult cellphone users in South Africa (according to research organisation Nielsen’s Mobile Insights Study, vast new vistas have opened up for cyber-criminals, who rip off phone users with anything from the bizarre ‘pay up or die’ threat to the distressingly common SIM swap scam.

Cramming

This scam gets its name from the unauthorised third-party charges that are ‘crammed’ in among other items on a monthly bill, making it hard for the cellphone user to spot them. These scams start with an offer of a free or low-cost ringtone or other product or service – but by accepting the offer, the user is actually subscribing to a service.

What you can do Carefully check your monthly cellphone statements as soon as you receive them so that you can quickly pick up unauthorised charges; be extremely wary of special offers that come via your cellphone.

SIM swaps

This fast-growing fraud generally starts with a phishing email that gets you to disclose your cellphone or internet banking login details. Using this info and a fake ID, the fraudster requests a new SIM card from your cellphone operator. Your operator cancels your SIM card, and all your calls and SMSes then go to the new SIM – including the one-time pin SMSes that enable the fraudster to access your bank account.

What you can do Never, ever give out your personal details in response to an email or SMS, and never click on a link in an email or SMS that asks for these details.

Scamming

Text-message scams take various forms. The text may tell you that you’ve won a prize and give you another number to call to ‘claim’ it – the call may be very expensive and/or the prize may be another scam. Or you may receive a text message from an unknown number but which sounds like it might be from a friend (‘Hi, it’s Tumi. I’m back! When do you want to catch up?’). If you reply to ask who the sender is, you could get into a very expensive SMS exchange with a service that charges you for the messages you receive as well as the ones you send.

A new twist has recently emerged in the USA: called the ‘one ring’ scam, the scammers program computers to call thousands of random cellphone numbers, ring once, then disconnect. Curious victims who return the call are connected to a paid service or chat line, often outside the country.

What you can do Don’t reply to SMSes unless you know for sure who they’re from; never return a call to a number you don’t recognise; don’t call any number to claim a prize you’ve apparently won, especially if you didn’t enter a competition!

Malware

Just like computers, smartphones that access the internet are susceptible to malware attacks from third-party websites, downloaded apps (such as fake banking apps) and other sources. Email malware embeds itself into your phone and sends personal information back to a command centre, from which hackers can then get your contacts, text messages and call logs.

What you can do Install a good anti-spyware or anti-malware program on your phone; password-protect your phone; carefully read the permission on every app before you install it.

The bottom line with many cellphone scams is that they’re often small enough to go undetected, but stopping them can take up huge reserves of your time and energy. The best line of defence is ‘prevention is better than cure’. Remember: if a cellphone deal or SMS sounds too good to be true, it probably is!

Know your rights: SA’s new legislation

The Consumer Protection Act makes it a criminal offence for suppliers to indulge in ‘unconscionable conduct’, which includes cellphone scams. Read more about it here.

The Protection of Personal Information Act gives you the right to stop any company that contacts you about any product/service from ever contacting you about that product/service again. For more about this, go here and here.

Vodacom leads with the double opt-in

Vodacom launched its ‘double opt-in system’ in December 2011, whereby all customer service requests to Wireless Application Service Providers (WASPs) need to be confirmed with Vodacom before a customer is considered subscribed. This makes it nearly impossible for customers to be billed for any WASP service without their consent. MTN and Cell C introduced similar systems late last year.

To check if you’re being billed for any WASP services and stop them if you want to, text ‘stop all’ to 30333 (for Vodacom users only).

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