Ringtone scams: usability and the law

I’ve just found out that I’ve been charged over £100 over the past year for a subscription-based polyphonic ringtone service that I never subscribed to. I am very pissed off. I managed to track down the perpetrating company, Stream Group who allege that I explicitly subscribed via SMS on Tuesday May 25th 2005 at 23.05. 

Looking back I do remember getting SMS spam but I never realized I was getting charged for it. After a bit more digging I discovered there is a premium rate services regulator called ICSTIS. Fat lot of good they are. This kind of “single SMS fire-and-forget lifetime subscription” should be illegal. You can subscribe by mistake, and then can forget about it – as I did, for months or years, since it is hidden in your bill. A purchase should always involve an “are you sure?” confirmation. In other words…

In other words, the customer should send two text messages with different content. This way they cannot make a purchase by mistake. Furthermore, every SMS you receive should explicitly state the full cost of the service as well as how to unsubscribe. This is what an SMS dialogue should look like:



Provider: “You have requested to subscribe to acme ringtone service. You will be sent two polyphonic ringtones each month, and this will cost you £10 each month. Are you sure you wish to subscribe? If yes please send the message “I AM SURE” to this number (85772). If you do not wish to subscribe, ignore this message and you will not be charged.”

User: “I AM SURE”

Provider: “You are now subscribed to the acme ringtone service. This service is costing you “£10 per month. To unsubscribe, text “STOP” to this number (85772).”

The whole idea of someone paying to receive an SMS is crazy. It’s so open to abuse. SMS messages are ephemeral and you can’t be sure the recipient actually gets and reads them.