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Does fining spammers help?

One of the most common sorts of SMS spam in the UK relates to Payment Protection Insurance or PPI. Because of unethical selling practices by the loan industry, many UK consumers can claim thousands of pounds in compensation, and private companies who assist them in claiming that compensation (for a fee) are willing to pay well for sales leads, and are not too scrupulous about how they are gathered. Here’s a couple of examples from today’s reports.

Hi, your PPi claim still owes you 1702.43 from when it was mis-sold to you, it’s in your name waiting to be sent to you . To get it sent out today reply PPi

Unsure if you qualify for a refund of upto 7000 in mis-sold PPI paid on a loan or credit card? Reply PPI and we will run a no obligation check or reply STOP

At the end of November 2012 the Information Commissioner’s Office (the body responsible for taking action against SMS spam in the UK) fined the two owners of Tetrus Telecoms a total of £440,000 (US$690,000) for sending PPI spam. The two men in question, Christopher Niebel and Gary McNeish, are currently resident in Thailand, so the ICO may not have the easiest job collecting the fine. Of course, the spammers had long known that they were under investigation. Their office in Stockport was raided by law enforcement in August 2011 and Niebel’s Manchester home was raided in February 2012.

I decide to take a look and see if the publicity surrounding the fine had any impact on the volume of PPI spam in the UK. The answer is some, but not as much as you might hope.

PPI Spam

December and January levels for PPI SMS spam were significantly down from the big spike in October and November, but were about at the levels we saw in August and September, and higher than we saw for most of last year.

This shows that regulation and legal action are not in themselves enough to prevent SMS spam. So long as spammers can make enough in the year or two it takes to investigate and prosecute them to retire to another country, fines, however substantial, are not a sufficient deterrent. Only by effective policy based management and content based filtering can we reduce the success rate for spammers and remove the economic incentive to spam.

If you receive SMS spam you can report it by forwarding to 7726 (that S-P-A-M on you phone keypad) in the US and on some UK carriers. (Use 87726 for Vodafone and 37726 for customers of Three UK).

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