FTC charges 29 over 'gift card' scam

Posted by Emma Woollacott

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is continuing its crusade against spam, cracking down on a scam promising free gift cards via text message.

It's charged 29 people with sending, in total, more than 180 million spam texts - many of which the recipients had to pay for. The texts promised free gifts, including $1,000 vouchers for major retailers such as Best Buy, Walmart and Target.

"Today's announcement says ‘game over’ to the major league scam artists behind millions of spam texts," says Charles A Harwood, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.  

"The FTC is committed to rooting out this deception and stopping it.  For consumers who find spam texts on their phones, delete them, immediately. The offers are, in a word, garbage."

When consumers followed the links in the texts, they were directed to sites that collected a substantial amount of personal information - including in some instances health information. According to the FTC, this information was then sold to third parties for marketing purposes.

Indeed, in some cases, consumers were obliged to sign up for as many as 13 other offers in order to claim their 'free' gift card. Many of these offers included recurring subscriptions for which consumers were required to provide credit card information. Others required consumers to apply for credit, possibly affecting their credit score.

The FTC's going after the operators of the deceptive websites, as well as the people who sent the unwanted text messages, and is seeking restraining orders to get them to stop.

It may not seem like it, but spam levels are falling. According to Kaspersky Lab, spam hit a five-year low last year - although a surprising 3.4 percent of email messages still carried malicious attachments.

"Malicious spam, fraud, and advertising of illegal goods cannot simply or easily migrate to legal platforms, due to their own inherently criminal nature," says Darya Gudkova, Kaspersky's head of content analysis and research. "We expect that the decline in spam volumes in 2013 will be negligible at best."