WhatsApp dominates South Africa's instant chat landscape. (Duncan Alfreds, Fin24)
Johannesburg - Dozens of readers have asked Fin24 about how to get out of WhatsApp ‘scams’ that could cost them hundreds of rands per month.
On Friday, a Fin24 article highlighted how some Wireless Access Service Providers (Wasps) are sending smartphone users text messages that ask them to download WhatsApp add-ons or updates.
However, clicking on the link could lead to a web page which has terms and conditions in fine print at the bottom of the screen. Users who then click on the likes of a green ‘continue’ button, which promotes the WhatsApp add-ons or updates, then risk actually signing up to other premium services such as social networks that cost up to R7 per day.
Up to 2% of News24 readers said in a voting poll over the weekend that they have fallen victim to WhatsApp spam messages and subsequently lost money.
Results of the News24 voting poll. (a screenshot by Gareth van Zyl)
And since publishing the article, Fin24 has also received dozens of emails from readers who have fallen for WhatsApp spam. Many readers have asked Fin24 about how they can avoid daily charges that are coming off their phone bills.
Here is how you should handle this problem if you’ve been affected by it, according to South African tech blogger and IT consultant Liron Segev:
Prevention is better than cure
Segev told Fin24 last week that app developers would never use an SMS to communicate that an application, such as WhatsApp, needs to be updated.
Therefore, never click or press on links in SMS messages if you aren’t aware of its source.
"Developers would never rely on an SMS system to mass email or SMS everyone to say 'please update your software'," Segev said.
Also, check with your mobile network if they have systems to prevent you from unintentionally signing up for a service you don’t want.
MTN, for instance, has measures in place to protect subscribers.
“MTN has introduced a token-based billing system in its quest to protect its customers from roque Wasps. To activate this self-service token, MTN subscribers need to dial *141*5# to view, activate or cancel subscriptions,” the company told Fin24 last week.
“This system will generate a token for customers to opt in and approve their purchase or subscription to any Wasp service before being billed. MTN customers will now have access to the following information before approving a purchase or subscription: the name of the Wasp providing the service; the service or product being purchased; the frequency of the service; the amount to be charged per frequency once agreeing to purchase or subscribe; and disclaimer and/or terms and conditions being agreed to in terms of authorising the purchase or subscription,” MTN said.
Study your monthly phone bill
If you have already clicked on one of these WhatsApp SMS links, study your next month’s phone bill to see if any extra unwanted charges are coming off of your account.
Contact the wireless access service provider
If you have clicked on one of these SMS links and you’re either worried that the money may be deducted from your account or you can see amounts coming off from your bill, then one option is to contact the Wireless Access Service Provider (Wasp) responsible for the deductions.
Wasps that offer services in South Africa are obliged by Waspa to have a contact centre number on their website. If the service does have a contact number and it works, phone them to ask to remove you from their service.
Then, keep an eye on your phone bill to ensure the charges don’t come off your account again.
"The first thing is phone the service provider and say you no longer wish to be part of this particular service and opt out of it immediately," Segev told Fin24 last week.
"Try go to the original website and try opt out there, but they probably will make it so difficult that it becomes a no-end game.
"The main thing is to report it, and keep your eye on it continuously to make sure it doesn't stop for a while and then restart," Segev said.
Westbound Direct, which is a Wasp that sells the WhatsApp Buddiechat add-on services in South Africa, has told Fin24 that subscribers to its R7 per day service can unsubscribe by doing the following:
- "On the commercial message, dialing the 0110621424 the number will be automatically unsubscribed."
- "On the landing page, calling the help desk number 0105009618 and asking to the agent to unsubscribe the number or sending the word STOP to the relevant short code as provided in the support page accessible by clicking on the support active link provided in the disclaimer;
- "On the confirmation page (network operator hosted) declining the subscription by clicking the decline button or sending the unsubscribe word to the relevant code, depending on the network operator process."
Westbound Direct told Fin24 that it also sends sign up and monthly reminder SMS messages where users have the option to opt-out.
Report rogue ‘Wasps’
If all else fails and still can't stop the charges on your phone bill, then report the respective Wasp to your mobile network or Waspa.
A Vodacom spokesperson told Fin24:
“We will take action against any service provider who attempts to circumvent the rules we put in place to make it clear what a customer is signing up for as well as what the costs of the service are. That action would include revoking the supplier's access to our network and customers.”
The Waspa website, meanwhile, also has online forms that users can fill in regarding reporting spam and unwanted billing: http://waspa.org.za/report-spam/ and http://waspa.org.za/report-unwanted-billing/. The Waspa website also has a link whereby users can lodge complaints: http://waspa.org.za/lodge-a-complaint/
Readers’ experiences and comments
Fin24 reader Bryan Coppin has told of how he eliminated an unwanted service from his phone after clicking on a SMS link similar to the one described in the WhatsApp story:
“I encountered this interference a couple of weeks ago when I tried to scroll through pictures a Facebook friend had posted. When I got to the third picture or so the WhatsApp message would appear and NO WAY could I clear it and continue enjoying my friends pictures. I wrote to Waspa about this and they replied saying the service provider asked that I supply a screenshot of the offending notice as well as the URL info. All I was able to do was a screenshot which I sent to Waspa and have undertaken to forward any more info as and when it appears. I was caught this way a year ago and it cost me a few hundred rand. I reported this to my service provider MTN and they advised me to unsubscribe via an email address they gave me which prevents us from subscribing to what is called ‘content charges’... .Hope this helps someone!!
Fin24 reader Christo du Toit wrote:
“This happened to my wife when she noticed that her airtime was being depleted. After I made numerous attempts to delete or uninstall any applications on her phone that she didn’t need, without success, we went to our local Vodacom Outlet and they quickly saw the Wasp subscription or their system, and it was quite easy for them to delete it. After that we kept a close watch on her airtime balance and it’s now stable. Many thanks for this article, it will help a lot of users out there.”
Fin24 reader Marie Minaar wrote:
“Thank you very much for letting us be aware of a ‘WhatsApp’ scam. I received the same one and being naive I thought there was an update necessary at R7 a day. Fortunately, my head went into ‘gear’ and I contacted my service provider, who informed me not to take any notice of this message. Thank goodness, I did contact the correct people otherwise I would have a massive bill at the end of each month.”