The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) Watchdog column [The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)]
(Morning Call (Allentown, PA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 14--Some of my columns spark more outrage than others and, to my surprise, a brief report several years ago about random text messages supposedly awarding $1,000 Best Buy gift cards continues to rank near the top.
More than 150 people from all over the country have seen the article and contacted me to complain about getting the texts and to pass along phone numbers that are sending them. Most people who got the prize alerts knew they were phony -- stores like Best Buy don't hand out huge gift cards for no reason -- but recipients were not always clear about who was sending them and why.
Federal authorities say they now know who is behind the spam texts and what their intentions are. It's not to give you something for nothing.
"The offers are, in a word, garbage," Charles Harwood, acting consumer protection director at the Federal Trade Commission, said last week when announcing a series of lawsuits aimed at stopping what the agency alleges are unfair and deceptive acts.
It recently sued 29 individuals and businesses -- including one in Pike County -- it says are responsible for "bombarding" people with unsolicited texts or operating websites where the texts directed people to claim their prize.
People who tried to cash in were prompted to enter personal information that was sold for marketing purposes; to apply for credit that could affect their credit score; and to sign up for offers of products and services such as books and movies, some of which enrolled them in potentially costly recurring subscriptions, the FTC alleges.
The commission says people were not clearly told they'd have to pay or make other obligations to claim their prize and few, if any, people received gift cards.
Authorities said in court papers that if consumers knew those terms, many never would attempt to claim their gift card. They said the spam text messages were annoying to some recipients and costly to those whose phone plans charged them for each message.
Best Buy, Target and Walmart were among retailers whose names were used, authorities said. The stores were not involved, and many have warned customers and spent resources to address the issue, court records say.
Authorities said more than 180 million texts were sent to random phone numbers. Most people who have complained to me, including a Slatington woman a few months ago, suspected it was a ruse and discarded the messages.
Other people unfortunately took the bait, including Deborah Conrad of Allentown. She said she got text and Facebook messages during the holiday shopping rush in late November saying she'd won a Target card.
She's disabled and has been through some tough times and a gift card would have been a big help. She said she entered her information as directed and waited for her card to arrive. When it didn't, she called a store and said a manager told her he knew nothing about it. That's when Conrad called me.
She was afraid of what could happen with the personal information she entered, but told me this week that so far she hasn't been affected.
"It's disappointing," Conrad told me. "I don't know what they're getting out of it. It hurts."
What they're getting out of it, the FTC said, is paid.
The agency alleges the companies and people who sent the text messages directing gift card seekers to websites were paid by the website operators, who in turn were paid by businesses who gained customers when people signed up for offers on the sites. One of the companies sued by the FTC is Advert Marketing Inc. of Dingmans Ferry, Pike County, along with its owner, Scott A. Dalrymple, and Robert Jerrold Wence, who is described in court records as playing a role.
They sent at least 70.5 million deceptive spam text messages promising free gift cards during 2012, the FTC alleges in court records, which say the messages took people through a series of websites to claim their cards.
"Aside from the sheer absurdity of telling 70.5 million people that they each have won $1,000 gift cards, there simply are no free gift cards awaiting those consumers at the third-party websites," court records say. "Instead, the websites are elaborately designed to trick consumers into divulging personal, sensitive information and to persuade them to sign up for risky trial offers, the majority of which cost money and involve enrollment in pricey continuity programs that are difficult to cancel."
My phone call and email to Advert Marketing were not returned, nor were messages I left for Wence at phone numbers listed in court records. A number listed in court records for Dalrymple was disconnected. Attorneys representing the men and the business did not return my calls.
The Watchdog is published Thursdays and Sundays. Contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 610-841-2364 (ADOG), by fax at 610-820-6693, or by mail at The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA, 18101. Follow me on Twitter at mcwatchdog and on Facebook at Morning Call Watchdog.
If you get spam text messages, you can forward them to 7726 (which corresponds with the letters SPAM on most phone keypads) to alert your wireless carrier to block future texts from that number. Don't text back "STOP" or "NO." All that does is alert the sender they've reached an active phone number.
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