Spam is everywhere now

Lately I’ve been getting calls to my cellphone from unknown, random UK numbers. The first several times it happened, I didn’t answer. But when the calls kept coming, from a different UK number each time, I finally picked up to see who or what was at the other end of the line.

Silence. And before you ask, no heavy breathing either! This probably meant the calls were automated, and not necessarily coming from the UK.

Perhaps these random calls were a variation of the Wangiri scam, a Japanese word meaning “one ring and cut.” This relies on you calling back the number, at which point you’re hit with an overseas call charge on your cellphone bill. Or it could be a devious new marketing scam. Who knows.

Of course I blocked all the numbers, but because it’s a different number each time this won’t prevent future calls. To try and solve this, I ended up downloading a smartphone app called Call Control. It’s kind of like a Gmail spam filter for phones and appears to be working well so far.

This is the world we live in now. Spam is coming at us from multiple communication channels: phone calls, SMS, other messaging services, social media, and more.

Spam used to be mostly an email problem. And it’s still a huge problem there. The email spam rate reached an all-time high of 55.3 percent in July 2017, according to┬áSymantec. So over half of all emails sent are spam.

However for most of us email spam is less of an issue now, thanks to the sophistication of email providers like Google’s Gmail. There are still a few too many “false positives” in my Gmail spam folder whenever I check, but that’s a small price to pay for an almost total absence of spam in my inbox.

Unfortunately though, spam has migrated to places where it’s more effective. As well as unwanted phone calls, I’ve been getting a lot of unsolicited SMS messages. Including from otherwise respectable firms who repeatedly text me details about contests and offers I have no interest in (I’m looking at you, Spark). The most frustrating thing is that often the texts do not include an option to unsubscribe.

The reason text spam has increased is because messaging platforms have become a popular way for companies to market their products. Indeed a local firm, Modica Group, has become one of the fastest growing technology companies in New Zealand thanks to its “intelligent messaging” system.

When done well, for example the text messages I get from Kiwibank to warn me of low balances, Modica Group’s service is very useful. But as the company discovered recently, much to its embarrassment, it can also be hijacked by spammers. In September, many New Zealanders were sent a spam text that invited people to participate in a “US$20 million business proposal.” It turned out those texts had been routed to Modica’s platform through an unwitting client.

In this era of Internet noise, where hundreds of millions of people and organizations vie for your attention every day, spam is a bigger problem than ever. I define spam as any unwanted communication; and nowhere is that more prevalent than on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms.

One of the best uses for Twitter used to be to track the hashtag of a conference or event. However these days, you’ll find it difficult to filter out all the porn and other spam accounts that gleefully use those same hashtags.

What’s worse, social spam is often quite subtle. On LinkedIn, for example, every time I updated my profile I used to get the following message from loads of people: “Congrats on the new role! Hope you’re doing well.”

At first glance it looks like a personal message from one of your contacts. But in fact, it’s a stock message that takes one click to send. Because it’s an automated prompt by LinkedIn, many people have gotten into the unfortunate habit of clicking it repeatedly.

Frankly, it’s a turn off. By that I mean it prompted me to turn off all notifications from LinkedIn.

What if this is just the beginning of the extended spam era? One of the biggest trends right now is voice-controlled devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. Apple’s version, called HomePod, is coming in 2018. These devices are just a precursor to an even bigger trend: voice assistant software integrated directly into our household appliances. Samsung aims to introduce this technology as soon as next year, with its Bixby software.

So it’s just a matter of time before spammers infiltrate our homes. If nefarious programmers have worked out how to send automated, random phone calls to our smartphones, you can bet they will eventually get into our home appliances.

I’m already having nightmares about my refrigerator saying “hope you’re doing well” to me ad nauseam, like a broken record. Let’s hope Google is developing a spam filter for fridges!