WhatsApp SMS spam under investigation

2015-01-21 10:21 - Gareth van Zyl
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The fine print at the bottom of the web page signs up users to Buddiechat. (Liron Segev)

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Johannesburg - Complaints of SMS spam messages that advertise ‘WhatsApp’ add-ons are being investigated by South Africa’s Wireless Access Service Providers Association (Waspa).

South African tech blogger and IT consultant Liron Segev last week highlighted how responding to an SMS that advertises WhatsApp add-ons or updates could cost phone users hundreds of rands per month.

The text message that Segev blogged about tells phone users “you have not updated to the latest WhatsApp Add-ons”. The SMS then prompts users to ‘click’ - or rather press - on a link. Activating the link opens up the phone’s web browser and leads to a page with a big green button that says ‘continue’.

However, small print at the bottom of the web page details how phone users will actually sign up to a social network called ‘Buddiechat’ which costs R7 per day. Buddiechat is operated by a UK based company called Westbound Direct, which is a Waspa member.

Waspa has told Fin24 that there are currently two complaints in its system regarding WhatsApp add-on messages. Waspa plans to deal with these two instances via its formal complaints procedure, but the association has not disclosed further details such as the names of the service providers.

“The two aforementioned complaints currently being handled by Waspa are in the Formal Adjudication Process and Waspa is looking forward to receiving a ruling in respect thereof,” Waspa’s operational manager, Ilonka Badenhorst, told Fin24.

Waspa members found breaching the association’s code of conduct face expulsion.

Conditions set out in Waspa’s code of conduct include that “customer support must be easily available” and that “telephonic support must be provided via a South African telephone number and must function effectively”.

Westbound Direct, for example, displays what appears to be a South African phone number on its website. But when Fin24 phoned the number and asked for assistance regarding Buddiechat, the call was redirected to a call centre agent who said he is based in southern Europe.

UPDATE

Waspa's Badenhorst has confirmed to Fin24 in an email that Westbound Direct and its Buddiechat service has been the subject of a lodged complaint.

“The first complaint received by Waspa that was associated with the WhatsApp add-on service currently in debate was dealt with on the 13th of January 2015 using the processes and procedures set out in the provisions dealing with complaints as required by the Waspa Code of Conduct,” Badenhorst told Fin24.

“The service provider and content provider were immediately contacted and the marketing of the service was discontinued on the same day,” she said.

However, in a separate statement Waspa said that it "reserves the right not to comment on the specific service highlighted" in Fin24's article on Liron Segev's WhatsApp SMS warning.

"As an independent body, we are required to adhere to the processes and procedures set out in our constitution and the code of conduct. This query must follow due process and be adjudicated by an independent adjudicator for a ruling on the compliance or breach of the service," said Waspa in the separate statement.

Westbound Direct responds

Meanwhile, the company responsible for the WhatsApp SMS messages advertising WhatsApp add-ons but signing users up to Buddichat has defended its marketing methodology.

John Florence, of Westbound Direct, told Fin24 that his company has been selling its Buddiechat service in South Africa since June 2014 and that the company “choose(s) to charge a daily access fee due to the various content types that are available to our customers”.

He further said that his company operates the Buddiechat brand and that add-ons for WhatsApp are just one of the content services that it offers.

“As you surely understand it is a common marketing practice to promote the products a company is providing and not the entire service. Should we advertise the whole service the risk would be to not provide customers with a clear picture of what we are actually selling,” Florence told Fin24 in an emailed response.

“As the product forms part of the Buddiechat overall service, Buddiechat will be displayed accordingly where possible. This is no different from when for example, Mercedes Benz advertises a new car model they are not advertising the whole Mercedes Benz range, but the specific model range,” he said.

When asked about whether the SMS messages risk being misleading as they advertise WhatsApp add-ons but then redirect users to a web-page where a sign up option for Buddiechat is presented, Florence responded with this answer:

“When utilising text messaging as a marketing mechanism, you are restricted to a maximum of 160 characters within that message for SMS’s and up to 120 characters for WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) push messaging (a text based alert giving you the option of connecting directly to a particular link). We utilise WAP Push messaging as the primary method of text messaging based marketing. We provide a link in our messages that directs a customer to the relevant landing page should they choose to click on the link. Once at this landing page, the customer is furnished with all relevant information relating to the offering and the service in which that offer forms a part of. At this juncture, should the customer wish to continue, the Double opt-in process commences, and when they click on the call to action, for example continue in our case, they are completing stage one of the double opt-in process and will then be directed to the network hosted confirmation page.”

Florence went on to say that “add-on services such as wallpapers for WhatsApp are also available through other sales channels such as Google Play and the Apple store”.

The Westbound Direct representative further said that the company is operating within the confines of Waspa’s code of conduct.

Florence said one of these requirement is offering a double opt-in measure.

“The first element of the double opt-in process, is detailed within the landing page (the image that you supplied detailing the cost, service type and where Buddiechat is mentioned, as well as links to the full terms and conditions, privacy policy and customer care line),” Florence told Fin24.

“Should the customer express their interest at this juncture and wish to proceed to the second element of the double opt-in process, they are then redirected to the confirmation page, which is hosted by the mobile network operator.

“The mobile network operator requires the customer to confirm their request to join the service, and they detail the service type, the service name, cost and billing frequency,” Florence said.

Florence further said the web page provides specific information relating to the subscription service, such as price, service type and billing frequency.

He added that the service also sends signed-up Buddiechat users’ ‘welcome messages’ and ‘monthly reminder’ messages.

Regarding a possible investigation into Buddiechat, Westbound Direct said it welcomes this possible move.

“We believe that we have operated within the confines of the Waspa Code of Conduct, and welcome any investigation by the regulator into services of this nature across the board to ensure that they are operated appropriately,” Florence said.

Have you signed up for unwanted WhatsApp add-on services? Click here to find out how to get out of these services.

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