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Lawsuit targets cellular spam

WASHINGTON — The Federal Trade Commission said Thursday it had filed eight lawsuits in federal courts around the country against companies it accused of ordering or engineering the sending of hundreds of millions of scam text messages to mobile phone ­users.

The text messages, which typically promise gift cards to national chain stores or other prizes, are sent to random phone numbers and usually direct recipients to a website where they are asked for personal information, including Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, or other data, FTC officials said.

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Rarely if ever do consumers receive an actual reward, said C. Steven Baker, the commission’s Midwest region director. Instead of fulfilling the promise of prizes, the websites often take consumers through multiple screens asking for more detailed information or getting them to sign up for free trials of a product.

“If any consumer gets that far and actually gets a gift card, it isn’t free,” Harwood said, although he acknowledged the commission was not aware of anyone who had received a promised reward.

Roughly 60 percent of mobile phone users have received one or more spam text messages in the last year, he said, and about 15 percent clicked on the link included in the message.

The companies that send the scam messages frequently change the phone numbers where their spam originates, officials said, making them difficult to track.

The FTC has received at least 50,000 complaints about spam text messages in the last few years, including 20,000 complaints that related to an offer of a free gift. The number of complaints is growing rapidly, however. Baker said the commission received seven times as many complaints in 2012 as in 2011.

Officials advised anyone who receives such a message to not click on any link and not reply to the message.

In particular, they said, do not text STOP or a similar direction back to the sender, as is often advised, because that lets the sender know the phone number is real.

Rather, consumers are requested to forward the text message to 7726, which is a central repository for spam messages set up by the cellphone carriers. The message should then be deleted, the officials said.

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