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The Dark Road to (Too) Cheap SMS

Gray routes, SIM farms, Spoofing, Faking and SMS Spamming; shady operators use each of these methods to illegally cash in on the growing market for business text messaging. While cheap SMS may seem tempting, those prices often come with poor quality and will leave you dissatisfied.

In other articles, we’ve talked about how some dishonest actors choose to play by their own rules. By distributing SMS without paying for the traffic, they offer bulk SMS at very low costs. But how are these traders exploiting others for their own gain? And what risks do you and your customers face when working with these suppliers? We’ve got the answers for you, so you know why you should avoid (too good to be true) cheap SMS.

Gray routes – the back doors into mobile operators’ networks

The linchpin of a healthy SMS ecosystem is the compensation of every link in the chain for their contribution.”Interworking agreements” govern mobile operators’ piece of the pie. Traffic is sent between mobile networks over agreed upon channels. The operators that deliver SMS to end recipients’ phones get what is called a “termination fee.”

“Gray routes” are connections not controlled by one of these agreements. Sending SMS over gray routes is a highly questionable business practice. Suppliers who use these routes do so at the expense of others. The volumes sent over gray routes account for a large portion of the traffic in an operator’s network. This stolen traffic results in increased infrastructure costs, which is bad for everybody.

More and more mobile operators see the value of blocking this stolen traffic. When an operator chooses to block a gray route, all SMS traffic routed through it stops right away. This means that if you rely on this type of traffic, your SMS won’t be delivered. In the end, the communication between business and consumer is broken. And what good is a cheap SMS price if your message never makes it to its end point?

SIM farms – the real bad guys of SMS

Through the use of SIM farms, shady suppliers manipulate the cost of sending SMS. The setup takes advantage of the generous fixed price offerings for SMS that mobile operators have for end consumers. By connecting hundreds of SIM cards with unlimited SMS to a central point, suppliers can offer very cheap SMS in bulk. The problem is this type of resale is illegal. Mobile operators have very specific contracts regulating what consumers may do with their free SMS, and SIM farms explicitly break these contracts.

From a technical point of view, it’s difficult for SIM farms to handle large volumes of traffic, or to ensure accurate delivery. This results in both quality and capacity problems.

Professional operators and aggregators increasingly use firewalls to monitor and analyze incoming traffic. Operators block traffic based on the misuse of private subscriptions as soon as they notice it. When this happens, SMS traffic that has been sent from a SIM farm but not yet delivered never will be. Chances are that if you use these services, you’ll never be notified when this happens. The best case scenario is that you’ll figure it out by getting complaints from users who never received the SMS they were expecting. If your recipients weren’t anticipating a message, you might just keep sending SMS without knowing there is a problem.

If you’re thinking about using SMS to reach out to customers or other key stakeholders, it is worth knowing that SMS farms pose a threat to the quality of your messages. Route detours often cause delivery delays, or the delivery of impaired SMS. Professional aggregators routinely monitor for these issues and know how to avoid them.

SMS Spoofing – why you can’t always trust the sender

SMS Spoofing is when someone in a mobile network changes the sender name so that it looks like messages are coming from someone else. This is done by switching out the original mobile number for alphanumeric text. The functionality behind spoofing isn’t always illegal; many trustworthy companies use this technology. With Dynamic Sender IDs, SMS can have a company’s name as sender, or the name of a specific product or product line. Dynamic Sender IDs make it easy for customers to understand where SMS come from. They also make it possible to assign a sender that can be texted or called back, so they connect with the right person or department.

Problems arise when suppliers use spoofing tactics to intentionally mislead recipients or others in the supply chain. Many see this version of spoofing as the fastest growing threat legitimate SMS traffic.

Here’s an example of how this works. Manipulating address information allows shady suppliers to pretend they are users who have roamed out of their networks. Because these spoofed messages are often addressed to recipients outside this home network, the SMSC (SMS center) of the home network operator is forced to send SMS to other networks. The actual sender avoids paying by passing the bill on to the subscriber who owns the “borrowed” number. The subscriber or their operator ends up with the bill, and the spoofer pays nothing.

Because sender information is easy to hide, individuals can’t ensure the quality of SMS they receive, or know who is really behind them. Fraudulent suppliers take advantage of this to trick recipients into thinking an SMS is from a trusted source, leading them to click on links, or give out sensitive information. In the long run, this type of fraud forces higher costs on subscribers and operators.

SMS Faking – sending the bill to someone else

SMS faking is similar to spoofing in that the person sending the message manipulates the original message data before sending it. In this case, shady traders manipulate the information in the SMSC responsible for sending the message. As with spoofing, this is a way for a fraudulent sender to avoid paying for the SMS traffic they send.

Using this type of fraudulent service has many risks. Just like with other unethical SMS providers, clients can experience a complete shut-down of services overnight when legitimate operators find out what’s happening and start to use service walls. And because the information about the sender is manipulated, delivery reports are incorrect. This means that the data presented is inaccurate, and that the cause of these inaccuracies is impossible to trace. The end result is impaired monitoring ability, and a decrease in quality.

SMS Spam – irritating and frustrating

You probably know all to much about spam; unsolicited, often unwanted messages. While SMS spam isn’t as common as email spam, it is already a growing threat to SMS traffic around the world. In Europe alone, suppliers send 45 million SMS classified as spam.

Spam goes from annoying to illegal when senders include e-mail addresses, URLs or premium rate phone numbers designed to deceive recipients. Sometimes messages encourage recipients to call the sender back, or to reveal private financial information. Spammers then use this information to further their illegal activities by committing fraud.

Offering cheap SMS prices is a tactic spammers use to get customers (and thus phone numbers for potential targets). The goal here is to access contact lists, and then to send those contacts SMS spam. Established SMS suppliers avoid this kind of practice themselves, and ensure that sub-contractors in the chain don’t use these methods. It might be cheap, but using illegal SMS services leaves you exposed to this type of messaging.

Choose the right SMS supplier

Dishonest suppliers in the SMS market often use questionable and illegal methods to offer cheap SMS prices. If price is the main factor when you evaluate SMS suppliers, chances are you’ll end up paying for that low quality in other ways. The loss of goodwill, angry consumers, and lost revenue are, in the end, a high price to pay for cheap SMS.