Mobile leaders recoil from the spam trap

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Because mobile phones continue to evolve and consumer adoption is still growing, mobile compliance can be a tricky area. While mobile spam is not new, the definition of what is and is not mobile spam is still being studied by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA), Forrester Research and the Wireless Association (CTIA).

Mobile spam can be divided into two general categories: legitimate marketers not following best practices and sending unsolicited messages, and the more devious malware attacks, in which malicious messages are sent through text or e-mail to attack a phone's operating system. Either way, this spam is annoying to consumers.

"On the mobile device, people have a lower tolerance for spam than they do anywhere else, and they often have to pay for messages," says Mike Wehrs, president and CEO of the MMA.

Contributing to this intolerance is the fact that consumers often will stop what they are doing to read a new mobile message. "When the phone beeps, they go to see what it is, so marketers should be very careful that they are sending targeted messages so as not to disturb the consumer," Wehrs explains.

To help legitimate marketers become compliant in the mobile marketing space and to help define what is appropriate as the landscape changes, the MMA and Forrester have issued a number of best practices, most of which push for marketer transparency and consumer control.

"Marketers should enable the end user to control the communications that are received at the device, and enable them as a user, not through the carrier or customer service, to say, 'I don't want any messages from short codes' and also to create lists of who can get through," says Daniel Hoffman, SVP of communications at SMobile Systems.

One provider offering this particular option is AT&T. Customers can restrict the sources of e-mail that reach their phone at mymessages.wireless.att.com, or reply to unwanted e-mail messages with "BLOCK" in the body of the response. AT&T users also can stop unwanted short code messages by replying "STOP" in the body of the response to prevent future messages from that short code or by blocking numbers at att.com/smartlimitsforwireless.

In addition, the MMA lets consumers report spam on its site.

Legally speaking, mobile marketers are required to follow the CAN-SPAM Act, meaning that consumers must opt in to receive marketing messages.

The opt-in guidelines are much stricter for mobile than e-mail, however, because of both costs and the personal nature of the phone. For example, if a consumer signs up to receive mobile messaging from a retailer for a deal on jeans, that marketer can only text them about jeans. A consumer has to opt in separately to receive messaging about sweaters.

According to the MMA, a consumer should be able to opt out of a message even after opting in. There should be a clear way to do so in every mobile marketing message. In addition, a consumer should know what kind of personal information is being stored and how it is being stored.

While the idea is to be more transparent with the consumer, sometimes letting consumers know what data you're tracking can create a sticky situation, since more targeted and relevant mobile messages require more personal information on the consumer.

"As you eliminate the ability to do targeting what you are doing is making it closer to spam," Wehrs adds. "So, there is a delicate balance to being targeted and relevant without going too far and making the user feel that their privacy is being invaded."

The CTIA is currently working with the MMA to put together its own list of wireless best practices, which are expected to be released at the end of the year.

"We are trying to figure out how the carrier community can facilitate responsible advertising to consumers while at the same time protecting the privacy of the subscriber base," says David Diggs, VP of wireless Internet development for CTIA. l

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