SMS Subscription Service: the scam & how I got my money back

Submitted by Robert MacLean on Wed, 09/12/2012 - 19:37

This post is a departure from my usual technology filled posts, it is rather a personal story that affects many people that I think is worth sharing my experience. It is about these SMS subscription services where people signup for a service, and get content via SMS and then get billed monthly for it via there cellphone provider. I was signed up without my knowledge, billed and this is how I found out about this scam industry and got my money back from them.

The Story

It starts

The first indication I had was the odd appearance of “Content Charge” on my July invoice from MTN (my service provider). MTN uses such complicated names for services that it could mean anything but something said I should find out what it is. I called MTN and was told it was for a subscription service! I told the call centre agent that I had never signed up and wanted my money back. Unfortunately MTN couldn’t help me – all they did was cancel it that day and give me the details of who to contact about this.


The interesting thing about this is that to run a subscription service in South Africa you must be a member of WASPA, Wireless Application Service Providers' Association. WASPA has excellent rules about what is allowed and what is not allowed and the company MTN told me to call about a refund is thus a WASPA member – that company is called Opera Interactive. (I am not linking to these companies not because I do not want you to know exactly who they are, but I do not want to give them any search engine love).

I phoned and spoke to their Opera’s call centre (by now the 25th July) and they told me they could not help – as they only do the billing. All they can do is cancel the service and give me the actual companies details. That is right, Opera is not the company they are a middle man and, from what I understand, they let non-WASPA members “pretend” to be them, handle the interaction for billing with the service providers and take a cut of the profit!

Opera then told me to contact Mobmatic who were incredibly rude & told me to email as they do not help on the phone with refunds because, while they have a South African phone number, they are based on the UK - eventually they just hung up up me after I asked to speak to a manager. So I emailed then and then immediately logged a complaint with WASPA.

Lies, damn Lies

Nothing until the 31st July when Mobmatic emailed me a document (below) as proof I had signed up and told me that they wouldn’t refund me. So I looked over it and checked the details.

  1. Checked my SMS’s on my phone to see if there were any @ the dates/time specified. There was only one the 3rd July one, but considering I have never signed up I ignored as it seemed like a scam – however the key confirmation signups were not there.
  2. The phone model & even the browser string features did not match my phone.

I responded again with that info and asked for a refund.


Then nothing, no one responding until the 2nd August when WASPA said it had proof of me signing up from a company called Sprint (note: not Mobmatic), had asked for the service to be cancelled and then closed the case. Despite me asking for a refund, they ignored it – it really felt like WASPA had an automated system. I contacted them back and said I suspected the the “proof” was the same as sent to me and outlined the error in the “proof” and asked for a refund.

The scary part of the WASPA reply was “Since your unsubscribe request was not resolved using the informal process,” – informal?! What is informal about logging requests, getting reference numbers and so on. Just leads more proof that WASPA does it in an automated process.

WASPA contact Sprint again with the details I sent them and told them they had to provide a significant data in their response of they would have to go before an adjudicator.


The fight back

Oddly within 3 days of this I was phoned and offered a full refund and told I would be emailed and I could respond with my details. I got the email the next day (below) and it is almost what they said, except for a clause to protect themselves of any legal action if I accepted the refund.


I gave them the details and got my refund! WASPA contacted me a week later to confirm and I held responding for a further 3 days until the money actually arrived in my account (10 full days after I had spoken to them – what is this the 80’s). I told WASPA it is sorted out but urged them to launch an investigation into the companies and structures. That all was a few weeks ago and nothing has happened since.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully this shows you that it is possible to fight these people who are screwing the man in the street around and gives you some idea what to do. The short list of things to remember is:

  • Your mobile provider can’t do much – so do not fight with them. Be kind, and get them on your side so you can get as much info as possible.
  • Keep a log of all interactions, get names, reference numbers, times etc…
  • Once you have tried the direct route with the companies, contact WASPA immediately. While they seem to be a tick the check box type organisation, you will need their help too.
  • When you get “proof” go through it in detail. I would have likely just agreed with them that maybe it was a mistake, but the phone model was wrong & the ISP suspicious, gave me confidence that I was correct. These are not simple things to check, so maybe get your favourite geek to help.
  • Do not give up – if you are right there is plenty of routes. From speaking to MTN during this, if WASPA fails you can still escalate to the consumer commission which does give you a lot of power to fight them.

While WASPA is a good idea, it seems they are underfunded and employing everything they can to automate the system and deal with the load as much as possible. It is clear in the requirement you need a double opt-in, however the opt-in system does not need to be on the device and thus can be forged – this is just a sign that while the good idea is there, they are not able to keep up to date with techniques that bad companies are using to steal money.

Hopefully you never have this happen to you, and if you do I hope this helps you fight these scammers!