24 Jan 2006, 03:04:39 PM

Reporter: Helen Wellings

They're telemarketer's dreams - mobile phones generate fortunes for scammers. With around 20 million mobile phone users around Australia, those fraudsters can't lose. In fact complaints to the Telecommunications Ombudsman about bills for premium rate SMS's have tripled in the past year - and text spams top the list.

Gordon Renouf, of the Australian Consumers' Association, publishers of Choice magazine, warns "There's more and more of this kind of spam going to go out to consumers. It's only going to get worse unless the regulations are fixed up."

The latest rackets attacking mobile users left, right and centre - offers of so-called "free" ringtones, "you've won a competition for a trip" scams and innocent-looking text messaging that tricks you into replying.

"All the text messages were inviting and playful and much like a friend would text you that's really what got me in," says IT expert Steve Marr. He was intrigued by an SMS from someone say "Hi it's Susan. I'm back. Contact me." Thinking it was an old acquaintance just back from overseas, naturally he sent back a text message. "It came back with a very bizarre message saying "blonde hair blue eyes long legs. Does that help?" I thought I still don't know who this person is but they're having a lend of me. Someone's got a sense of humour I'll play along."

After a few text messages, he discovered he couldn't make a call from his prepaid mobile, even though he'd just bought $30 worth of credit. Steve was scammed! By replying to the message, he'd automatically become a subscriber to a chat service. Every time the service messages him, it costs him $4 up; his replies cost him 50 cents.

Choice's Gordon Renouf says, "Another thing that almost certainly applies is the Trade Practices Act because these people are actually tricking you into signing up for a product or a service and that's misleading conduct and is definitely illegal." But he adds that, ironically, the Spam Act which is meant to specifically apply to unwanted messages, has big loopholes, so the scammers continually get away with it.

Another person who's been scammed is Paul Oar Zins. "They just continue to send me messages almost on daily basis I didn't realise they were costing money I was just looking at them reading them and ignoring it."

Paul received a text message advertising a competition. "I had an opportunity to win an mp3 player. They said it was $2 per message sent and $2 per message received so I said I didn't want to take part. I thought that would be the end of it."

But when Paul went to make a call on his prepaid phone, his $40 credit had disappeared. He'd actually been charged for reading unwanted messages, again $4 up for each message. "I don't even know how they got my phone number in the first place but they're just taking my money without my permission they seem to get away with it," says Paul angrily.

Free or cheap ringtone offers - another vicious scam targeting mobile phone users around the country. Once Paul Dale accepted the offer for one at $5, he kept getting more messages. "Every 5 days they send you a message saying you can get a ringtone here. I assumed it was just advertising because I hadn't signed up to anything."

Paul had accidently registered with a company known as Mobile Active. When he checked his bills, he realised he'd forked out, not $5 ... but $195 for just one ring tone. The catch - once you get your ringtones, the only way to stop being billed continuously is to .. opt out. "You have to cancel but I didn't think you had to cancel something you didn't subscribe to," says Paul.

Gordon Renouf is concerned about the hundreds of thousands of young consumers with mobile phones - easy targets for scammers. "Kids are going to be more likely to respond to messages and less likely to hit the stop command. And so that's a real worry in terms of parents who are going to be paying for their children's mobile phone bills."

ADVICE: If you want to complain, it's difficult to work out just which authority's got the power to help you and stop the scams, especially if they're overseas companies. So the best advice, start with The Australian Communications and Media Authority and your phone service provider. And also try the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.

Steve and Paul Oar-Zims finally got refunds. But not everyone is that lucky. Once you reply to an SMS, then try to unsubscribe, often you're hit with more bills. Steve's warning, "My message to everybody out there, particularly kids is, do not respond to anybody you don't know who they are. It's just not worth it."

* The Australian Communications Media Authority.

Report to or use ACMA's online report form on its website.

* The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman {TIO}.

1800 062 058