Unwanted SMS

Reporter: James Thomas

"Over the last year I would have paid around $1500 receiving these premium service texts for nothing, for nothing, just receiving a big bill" said Alexandra Coffey.

"I received an email from who I thought was Woolworths but it wasn't. It was from another company but it carried all of Woolworths logos and trademarks, the fresh food people and I just thought the email was something to do with the rewards program. I signed up to it" said Justine.

When Justine Fischer entered what she thought was a Woolworths competition to win $500 worth of petrol, she had no idea another company was cashing in. Then the SMS' started. Constantly, from a company called Dialect Interactive, Justine ignored them until her phone bill arrived.

"Each SMS I disregarded I found out it cost me $2.40" says Justine.

"Just this week we got a complaint from somebody whose son had actually run up a bill of $1400 on his mobile service from the subscription services, he doesn't know how to unsubscribe, he doesn't know that just by texting S_T_O_P after receiving one of these back to that same phone number that in fact that service should stop so now his phone is being disconnected" says Teresa.

Teresa Corbin from the Consumers Telecommunications Network says Mobile Premium Service companies are getting more creative. Sneaky, manipulative and potentially acting illegally is another description.

"You get an unsolicited call on your mobile and it is usually a recorded voice that says press six or press nine to claim a prize or to get a free voucher there's a hook involved and you follow through the prompts but you are never told that you are actually subscribing to a service and the fact that you are going to be receiving SMS's on an ongoing basis" adds Teresa.

The messages are sent from a number beginning with 1-9, called a Premium SMS. It's different from a normal SMS in that if you receive it, you pay the bill.

"On several occasions when I texted stop, I received 6 consecutive messages all to the tune of $6 each sort of asking me if I was certain I wanted to stop the service" says Alexandra.

For Alexandra Coffey her 'free' ringtone has been anything but.

"The complicated thing too is that the numbers you are receiving these messages from aren't listed on your phone bill so it was quite a lengthy process to get the numbers from the phone company they wouldn't issue them and eventually they did and they said ok so I would phone these numbers that would either ring out or go through to someone who had no idea what this is all about and would then pass the buck to the service provider and round and round we go" said Alexandra.

"One morning they started at quarter past 4 and fired one off after the other at me until my credit had gone again. In the end I had to get on to Telstra and put a bar on my phone for premium SMS messages" says hotel manager Phillip Harrison. He is also a victim of the 'free' ringtone offer. Days after he downloaded his, a company called BLUE BOLT bombarded him with text messages.

So how can these companies get away with charging us for something we never asked for? The Telecommunications Ombudsman's office was too busy to talk to us today, perhaps because in just three months this year, there have been 6000 complaints about Premium SMS'. While they say they investigate ALL complaints and most do get resolved, they in fact don't even have the power to penalise these companies. Is it any wonder complaints are rising?

"I complained to Telstra they didn't take any responsibility however they have provided the infrastructure so they should take some responsibility for it" says Phillip.

That responsibility is up to the Australian Communications and Media Authority. But ACMA say it only acts when the Ombudsman requests an investigation and so far NO complaints have been passed on.

In the real world, a very different story. In just two years, complaints about Premium SMS' have jumped from 62 a month to 2000.

Woolworths has referred Justine's case to the ACCC, adamant that it doesn't on-sell customer details. The supermarket has also investigated legal action against online competition website WIXAWIN, which offers prizes like gift cards from well known companies. Look closer and you'll see none of the companies listed has anything to do with the competition.

"We asked for a refund but of course it was in the fine print and in the original email I received it said I would be paying for every SMS that I DIDN'T respond to" says Justine.

Teresa says "What we actually need is some action on behalf of the providers not the consumers to systematically go through and provide some proper consumer protection. So they're not overcharging consumers in the first place."

"For all the research I've done, phone calls and letters to the ombudsmen and the whole bit, I'm still here talking to you with the same problem I had months and months ago" adds Alexandra.