Over 700 million messages sent every year in the US and the number is growing exponentially with the adoption of more capable cellular telephones. Over half of high-school and grade school students in Europe and the US now use text messages as their primarily communications methods between friends. 10% of all teens admit to sending more than 100 messages a day. It's an inescapable fact that the text message has become an integral part of our lives. Whether teens texting gossip amongst themselves, or professionals scheduling a meeting for later in the day, text messages have become a regular form of contact between people.
There's no doubt about the usefulness of text messaging in many cases, and texting can provide updates and information on a timely basis. Of course, there are also some issues associated with the activity of text messaging. One of the most widely reported in the media is the problem of people texting while driving. An insurance poll found that 67% of teens admitted to texting while driving at high speed, and 37% of teens admitted to having been "extremely distracted" by texting, in some cases leading to close calls or significant accidents. Even health hazards are starting to appear with texting, with reports of "text thumb" and RSI injuries increasing, as well as most people's posture adopted while texting leading to circulation issues with their forearms. With Mobile Spy's optional Live Control Panel, you can go online and monitor your teenager's text messages in real time when you know that they are driving.
But of more concern to most people is the use of the text message, SMS (Short Message Service) and IM (instant message) facilities on mobile phones for unsolicited or undesirable purposes. There's also the issue of message security. Are your text messages safe from prying eyes? Do you receive unwanted text messages and pay for the privilege? Are you worried about inappropriate text messages on your family's mobile devices? Contrary to most people's beliefs, text messaging is a quagmire of issues and dangers.
Some of the issues with texting are obvious, while others are less so. The most common complaint about text messaging systems is the delivery of unwanted text, or spam. While it's convenient to think of all incoming messages that you do not specifically want to receive as spam, in fact you may have opted in to a text message list by providing your name to a loyalty or update program online or in a retail application. Some mobile phone service providers even support these kinds of advertising messages through an agreement you sign when you subscribe to the cellular service. Since messages you've requested are technically "solicited" messages, you cannot complain about receiving them and must find a way to "opt out", typically through a Web site.
Still, the majority of text messages are unsolicited. Autodialers can call sequences of telephone numbers and route text messages to them automatically, delivering pitches for all manner of goods. While this is a much slower and more expensive method of delivering messages than traditional spam e-mail, there seems to be evidence that text message solicitations are more successful than spam e-mail by a considerable margin, often because people are not used to receiving text spam.
Another danger with cellular messaging is support for instant message clients. Many current smartphones supporting a variety of instant messaging clients such as MSN, Yahoo, and others. Using these IM clients to send and receive instant text messages to and from telephones is common, and many businesses depend on this method to keep people in touch when out of the office. Teens also depend on IM services to provide "always on" messaging to their friends. While bulk spam to IM clients is a rising problem, most messaging providers are trying to filter these messages before delivery. Still, once a spammer has your IM name or mobile telephone number, the incidence of spam reception goes through the roof. Currently, unscrupulous companies offer lists of valid mobile numbers to text spammers for up to 10 cents a number.
Most online messaging systems allow users to create profiles with personal information, and listing mobile telephone numbers as part of the profile is common. However, this can lead to volleys of unwanted spam. Since incoming messages are sometimes billable, depending on the contract term of the service provider, unwanted text message spam can be not only annoying but also expensive. This is especially true of newer telephones capable of handling multimedia content, which carries a much higher tariff for delivery.
Most phones that support messages allow you to turn this function off completely, which can help remove your contact information from some spammers. Since sending text messages usually costs the spammer, in most cases getting undelivered message notifications for a few days results in your number being removed from their autodial list. For instant messaging clients, most have an option to block incoming messages from anyone not on your "friend" list, which can be a useful method for reducing the amount of unwanted messages you receive. Some of the newer telephones also allow blocking of incoming text messages from anyone not in the telephone's directory, but this feature is not yet widespread.
The scarier aspect of messaging is the cost to you, though. Some service providers now offer a "reverse charge" SMS service that lets someone send messages to you, with you picking up the bill for both send and receive ends. While the origin of this practice was innocent, typically for obtaining online content such as telephone ring tones, wallpaper, and other "micropayment" services, it lends itself very easily to abuse.
Typically, a reverse charge SMS service is set up by scammers who collect several dollars for each message delivered to a reverse-charge service telephone. Signing up as a reverse-charge customer can be so innocuous, people do it all the time without realizing the consequences. In its simplest form, the scammers ask users to dial a simple telephone number (often shortened to just a few digits) to obtain something "for free", respond to an "urgent" message from a "loved one", or enter a give-away, but the very act of dialing that number subscribes the unwitting caller to a reverse-charge service. Before they know it, they can rack up hundreds or even thousands of dollars of reverse-charge costs in a single month before they realize how they have been scammed. Another popular way of getting signed up for these reverse-charge schemes is when someone borrows your phone for an "emergency" or "short" call...but they dial the signup number and you're on the hook. Legally, you typically cannot dispute these charges since you voluntarily subscribed to the service.
The best solution for these types of dangers is not to respond to any message or call that is not from someone you know and trust. Blocking text messages can help prevent the charges from accumulating, since the billing applies only on delivery, but blocking messages also takes you out of that particular communications loop from everyone. In a few cases, unwanted text messages reach such a high volume that the only solution is to change your mobile device number. Some service providers will perform a change for you at no charge, although most will levy charges for this service. Almost all pay-as-you-go or pre-pay accounts do not support number changes without a fee, though.
Digital phishing has increased dramatically in the last two years as well, mostly thanks to smartphone messaging systems. In this scam, an email or text message appearing to come from your bank or other institution appears, often with a request for immediate confirmation of a problem transaction. Eager to stop the "fraud", you respond through the thoughtfully-provided link, unaware that the official-looking messages are not associated with the legitimate organization. Your account login and password is captured, and your account can then be exploited. While most people are aware of phishing through email on their home PC, many are less cautious with similar attacks on their smartphones.
Managing and protecting your children's use of text messages on their mobile devices is a awkward subject for many parents, because they don't want to obviously snoop on their kids, but they feel an obligation to ensure their children are safe. With child predation always in the news, and the number of times younger children have been duped by adults posing as younger than they are, these fears can be justified.
Part of the problem adults face when monitoring their children's messages is the apparently unfamiliar language they use. For convenience and speed, most younger texters do not employ proper spelling or grammar, but use shorten forms of common words and phrases. While some compressions like "u" for "you" and "c" for "see" are obvious, others are not. For example, few adults realize "kok" actually means "knock" (as in getting someone's attention with "kok kok".) Worse are the short forms of phrases employed in text messages. Some, such as "AFAIK" ("as far as I know") and "LOL" ("laughing out loud") may be familiar, but there's a whole subculture of text lingo in common use. From simple (such as "CUOL" for "see you online") to complex (such as "HTNOTH" for "hit the nail on the head" or "PAL" for "parents are listening"), keeping up with the ever-evolving text lingo is difficult.
Apart from the predation issue, wherein adults masquerade as a similar-age person to build a friendship by text, then arrange a meeting, there are other issues from texting to children. A growing problem some children are facing is bullying by messaging, wherein intimidating or threatening messages are repeatedly sent to a child's telephone. (This problem is not confined to children, of course. Many adults are subjected to these types of harassing messages from coworkers or personal relationships that have gone sour.) Usually, especially when the messages are extreme, the police need to be involved as this is the only way to stop the messaging. Logging these messages either through the phone or other method is recommended so there is information available about their content and frequency. For children subjected to these messages, talking to a school authority is sometimes helpful, but in the majority of cases leads to no change in behavior.
Monitoring your children's activity on their telephones may seem intrusive, but with the rapidly rising number of dangerous incidents of predation on children, and the subcultures constantly springing up, sometime understanding text message content is the best way to ensure your children are safe. Learning text lingo is something you'll have to do in order to understand text content.
While there's no doubt text messaging is a useful, convenient, fast, and inexpensive method of staying in touch and delivering short messages, there's also no doubt that with the fast adoption of the technology and lack of guidelines for the industry, abuses of all kinds will happen. Education and vigilance is necessary, as it is with every technology we use today, to prevent abuse and misuse.