The government is stepping up its war on spammers, as it loses patience with New Zealand businesses flooding email and cellphone inboxes with unwanted messages.
Businesses who flout the new anti-spamming laws are now being issued with formal warnings from the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA).
Since September 2007, it has been illegal to send commercial emails or text messages within New Zealand without the consent of the recipient, yet many companies still persist with the practice.
In the past 12 months, nearly 2000 complaints have been lodged with the DIA's anti-spam unit about unsolicited material. Unsolicited emails from friends or family are not covered by the anti-spamming legislation as they are not considered commercial.
Until now the DIA has approached breaches of the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act with education and persuasion. Now it taking a tougher line.
DIA deputy secretary Keith Manch said 12 formal written warnings have been issued so far to companies which have persisted in sending out unsolicited marketing material, despite being informed it was no longer legal to do so.
By law, businesses who send out marketing material via the internet or SMS messages must include an opt-out facility, which allows recipients to remove their name from their distribution list. That is why most emails sent from businesses now contain information on how to unsubscribe.
Manch said while many businesses had adjusted their practices to comply with the new law, the DIA was now giving those that had been less inclined to co-operate an "incentive" to do so.
Companies that run spamming operations can face penalties of up to $500,000, while individuals can be fined up to $200,000.
Manch said that the problem wasn't just with emails; an increasing number of cellphone users were being bombarded with junk text messages.
In the past 12 months, the DIA had received 143 complaints about SMS messages and 1841 about emails. Christchurch man Paul Watson received an unsolicited text shortly after buying a Telecom iPhone. The text message contained a horoscope reading, which he immediately deleted. The texts kept arriving every few days and he kept deleting them.
When the first Telecom bill arrived for his new phone, Watson was shocked to discover he had been charged $30 for the texts. When he rang both Telecom and the company behind the text messages, he was informed that the initial text sent out had included a line at the bottom instructing him to ring a specified number if he did not want to receive the texts in the future.
"I never read that far down – I just deleted the text because as soon as I saw it was a horoscope I wasn't interested," Watson said. "It's like getting spam on your computer and then being charged for it. I never signed up for the service yet they can just go into my Telecom account and take the money for it, and there's doesn't seem to be anything I can do to stop them."
Manch said it was important people reported any breaches of the anti-spam laws via the complaints form on DIA's website (www.dia.govt.nz) or forwarded any SMS messages they received to 7726.
SPAM: HOW TO FIGHT BACK
Once your address is on a spammer's mailing list it can be difficult to get it removed. Here are some tips from the Department of Internal Affairs:
Only give your email address to people and organisations you know and trust.
Use a separate email address for posting to newsgroups, bulletin boards and for performing online transactions that may involve your address being passed on to a third party.
Do not put your email address on any webpages.
Don't open emails that seem to be from a dubious source, or open email attachments you weren't expecting.
Use an email address that cannot be easily "guessed" by the kind of software that spammers use to automatically generate addresses.
Don't respond to unsolicited mail.
Use a filter. There are several software products available to assist with unsolicited emails. In addition, most web email services (such as Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail and Ihug) and internet services providers (ISPs) include the ability to filter out spam.
Check terms and conditions, privacy and consent policies before disclosing personal information. Also check that organisations commit to not passing your information on to other parties. Read the fine print on competition entries so you know what you are agreeing to.
Be cautious when giving out your mobile phone number – you could be sent commercial messages as a result.
Be especially careful when signing up to enter competitions, receive subscription or "chat" services such as ring-tones, jokes, wallpaper, horoscopes and text flirting. Often you will pay to receive these messages, rather than paying to send them, as with normal SMS.
If you sign up for these reverse-billed mobile services, make sure you read the terms and conditions and know how to unsubscribe. You should be able to send the word "stop", "unsubscribe" or a similar command to discontinue the service.
- Sunday Star Times