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The premium-rate text-messaging scam worth €5 million

Spanish police bust gang that conned thousands of cellphone users using SMS messages

Images from the authorities after the gang was busted.

Spanish police have busted a gang they say made at least €5 million over the last decade from a premium-rate text-messaging scam.

A special Civil Guard unit dedicated to phone crime says it has arrested two brothers, along with nine of their partners, suspected of sending out hundreds of thousands of SMS and WhatsApp messages each month, aimed at luring recipients into replying using a premium rate number. Each sent message would cost the user around €1.50, with the revenue being shared with the mobile network operator.

The percentage of companies using the numbers for fraudulent purposes is increasing”

FACUA consumers’ association

The latest method used by the company saw bait texts sent out to cell phones, reading: “I’m writing to you from WhatsApp, let me know here if you are getting my messages.” It the recipient replied, they would be sending an SMS to a premium rate number. Another such message read: “Get in touch with me about the second job interview.”

Using their own call center, the gang also employed around 12 low-paid workers – who were being watched by their bosses via webcams – to send flirtatious messages, the tone of which would become more and more sexual.

How to avoid an SMS scam

  • The simplest way to prevent unwittingly paying for a premium-rate SMS is by asking your network operator to prevent your phone from being able to send these kinds of numbers until you decide otherwise.
  • Do not answer messages with numbers you do not recognize, particularly if they look unusual, for example if they have less than nine digits or begin with 79 or 25.
  • Do not enter your phone number on suspicious websites, because you could be signing up to a premium-rate service.
  • If you have been scammed, report the matter to your network operator, the relevant consumer bodies, and the Secretariat of State for Telecommunications (SETSI).

“Some people would send a reply, realize it was a scam, and not fall for the trick again, but one guy, who believed he was flirting with a woman, ended up with a €2,000 phone bill,” said Óscar de la Cruz, head of the Civil Guard unit that toppled the scammers, at a press conference last week.

The gang’s network consisted of two SMS Premium companies, Polindus 21 and Iebolina Tradicional, which acted as a front for around 20 bogus companies used to launder money. “We’re not talking about a couple of guys with a computer working from home, this is organized crime,” said De la Cruz about the 11 people arrested.

There are 213 SMS premium-rate operators in Spain with around 1,500 numbers. “The percentage of these companies that are using the numbers for fraudulent purposes is increasing,” says Rubén Sánchez of the FACUA consumers’ association. “Up until a few years ago there were still people that wanted to pay for content, but today, with smartphones that can access the internet, premium-rate services are pretty much on the way out,” he adds.

It takes far too long to deactivate these numbers, and when they do, the courts hand out ridiculously small fines”

The two brothers that the police have arrested, Pablo and Antonio de los Santos, had set up their own front company selling ring tones. They were reported by FACUA in 2014, but no action has been taken against them by the courts. “It takes far too long to deactivate these numbers, and when they do, the courts hand out ridiculously small fines,” says Rubén Sánchez.

Spain’s CNMC telecoms regulator issued its first fine to one such company last year: €10,000. FACUA is calling for specific legislation to regulate premium-rate services and prevent further scams of this kind.

One man who unwittingly signed up to the Simo brothers’ swindle ended up €1,500 out of pocket. After several months of paperwork, his mobile network operator, Movistar, returned his money. “Giving people their money back is only part of the solution,” said De la Cruz, whose team has spent three years tracking the gang’s activities. “What we want to see is scammers put behind bars.”