Saturday, June 18, 2011

How to Steal from MTN Cell Phone Subscribers

How Admob, MTN, Nokia, Opera Telecom, Go Go Mobile and Morvec are stealing money from my phone account.
These telecoms guys have an interesting new definition of the word "permission"; and it violates all ethical norms and codes of conduct. But that never stopped these companies from making a quick buck before.
I have finally figured out how it works, and how they "caught" me before. I remember on the day of the IPL Cricket final going to, the mobile site for CricInfo, to see what time the match would start. The site was overloaded, and very slow. I vaguely remember clicking on a display ad by mistake. It's an easy enough mistake to make, given how slow the graphics were loading. It was right at the top of the page, and I had scrolled down further already, but the cursor obviously hadn't moved yet. When this advert page appeared, I selected "back" and continued.
It turns out that purely by viewing this page, R14 was deducted from my phone account every 3 days until I noticed. I did not have to click any buttons, or agree to any pricing, or even be aware of what they were selling, if anything. Think of it as the virus of Internet display ads.
Last night I decided to retrace my steps, and see what happened. Using the built-in browser on my Nokia phone, I loaded up and selected the "Live" cricket match. In this case it was England vs Sri Lanka. At the top and bottom of the page is a banner ad (from that says: "Fun Mobile Videos Click Here". There is no indication of any cost involved before you click, and once you have clicked on the link the web site gets the MSISDN (subscriber) number from the phone. I have no idea whether the privacy geniuses at Nokia or MTN decided to give away my identity online in this fashion, but there you have it: it gets used for fraud without the phone owner's knowledge or explicit permission.
Later on, you might get a message from the robbing party informing you how to cancel your subscription, but by then the first amount has already been deducted. If the MTN network doesn't deliver the SMS, then that's just too bad. On 21st May I got no such message, so Morvec just kept deducting money until 7th June, by which time all my airtime was exhausted.
Last night I got a message after I clicked on the ad, and sent the "STOP" message immediately, but not soon enough for the MTN call centre to tell me today that another R14 had been deducted from my phone. So much for telling Opera not to subscribe me ever again. I guess they just aren't prepared to listen. According to the Morvec email I got:
Your cell number clicked on one of our banners via the mobile Internet and then accepted the terms and conditions [of] our wap page. Your number is automatically passed to us when you click on our Join button by the Mobile Networks.
Never mind that there is no "Join button" on the ad to click on. The text of the ad reads:
Scroll down & CLICK THE BUTTON RIGHT NOW & join the FUN!!
Bringing u great Games, Videos and more & great value, wallpapers and Screensavers cost jusr R10, Videos R25, Mobile Games R28! This is a subscription service charged at a minimum of ONLY R14 every 3 days which you can use to buy EXTRA content EVERY TIME - CLICK NOW ....
If billing is unsuccessful, retries for this billing cycle will be retried at discounted amounts and potentially on different days, by joining the service you are providing your explicit permission for this to happen. Cellmates has requested that your mobile number be made available.
By clicking Enter Here you confirm that you are joining the CellMates Club
For HELP please call 0800982175 or email - sms STOP to 31927 or 31848 at any time to end
Terms [sic]
What is interesting is that even when you don't click on the graphic and link Opera still steal your money. I suspect this is because the "subscription server" also displays the graphic, and therefore gets the cell number without explicit permission.
Surely the legitimate, legal and ethical way is to actually have a "Join" button that you would have to click on, that would initiate an SMS message to my phone, which would then require me to send the word "JOIN" to their servers? Of course it would! But these guys aren't ethical or honest enough to do that. They deduct first, dodge questions later, knowing that they can rip off a large section of the public without their knowledge. It would also be great if MTN would allow me to block these deductions, but since they get a cut, why should they bother about minor details such as breaking the law?
Update Monday 20th June: This is getting weird. Even though I displayed the above ad 3 times on my phone, and within the hour thereafter had R14 deducted from my phone account, "The Mob Club" (how ironic) sent me the following message:
We understand your frustration, however, the Go Go Mobile service that you have been charged for is in no way associated with our company and service. We suggest that you contact the provider of the service directly on the 0800 number they have provided.
We do buy advertising through Admob so on some occasions you will see adverts for our service and on other occasions adverts for services unrelated to our company, which is clearly what has happened in this instance. Our service is fully compliant with all regulations - before you join the service it clearly states the price, it displays information on how to unsubscribe and it has our full contact details. If you DO NOT click on the 'Enter Here' button to confirm your subscription you will NEVER be charged by our service.
Please remove any reference to our service from this web page since we are not associated with the service you are complaining about. Please confirm when this will be done.
I checked the 31927 short code mentioned by The Mob Club and it is run by: Opera Telecoms. So perhaps Opera should fix up their clearly broken system.
Update Tues 21st June: After The Mob Club (what an unfortunate name) protested their innocence, I displayed their Admob ad again, and checked the balance on my phone. No deduction. Interesting. I am waiting for answers from them and Morvec and of course Opera, but I'm not holding my breath. Perhaps MTN can help. I'm due to meet with them at lunchtime. So far R70 has been deducted from my phone account this month, which is over 70% of my monthly airtime.
I also called "Go Go Mobile" on 0800992230 and the loser on the other end refused to tell me their address over the phone. They claim to be members of WASPA, but aren't listed as such on the WASPA web site. They weren't particularly helpful or forthcoming, although they did promise to investigate. What are they trying to hide?
Update 4pm: I had a 45 minute meeting with 5 helpful executives at the MTN Innovation Centre today. It seems that MTN is planning some tools in future to help customers deal with these annoyances. Many thanks to Bridget Bhengu for arranging things. MTN are investigating my "subscription woes" and will be in touch shortly.
Update 22nd June: Paul Barrat from Morvec phoned me to offer a R100 airtime voucher, but then tried to slip in a "full and final settlement" clause. I'm not that stupid. Just because you put the stolen cookies back in the cookie jar doesn't mean they weren't stolen in the first place.
Update Friday 24th June: That "refund" Paul offered me has still not arrived. And Opera is getting a lot of complaints on HelloPeter too: 233 unhappy customers in the last year. Opera didn't learn from WASPA complaint #6868 where they were fined heavily. I hope they are fined heavily again, because they could go to jail if charged with fraud and theft. Maybe that's why they tried the "full and final settlement" con.
Saturday 25th June: The Mob Club is getting jumpy about their name being associated with this post. Yet they continue to do business with the company that stole my money, and they refuse to proovide me with any details about who they (the Mob Club) are. Why? What are they hiding? Seems like they aren't much different from the rest after all.
We think it would be far better to remove all references to 'The Mob Club' from your blog, not just strike them out, all you have done is visit our service terms and conditions landing page, you have never been subscribed or billed by our service. Frankly we don't like our service named under a headline of 'stealing money'.
Content services use URLs whitelisted by the networks so you may well see many very similar URLs for different services despite the providers behind them having absolutely nothing to do with each other.
We generally have no problem sharing company details at all, but we've never billed you nor have you ever been a member of our services so have no reason to give out this information especially as your original complaint seems to be evolving, again we have absolutely no involvement in it all other than you navigated to one of our services terms and conditions landing pages via banner ads on the mobile Internet and we would rather be left alone and associations no longer made as there is nothing at all contentious relating to us.
So what would be really fair is for you to remove references to us as there is no reason for us to appear on your blog and then we can all move forward.
We hope you manage to resolve your complaint successfully.
Well, [un]Helpdesk, I think the best way you can disassociate yourself from the bad apples of the industry is to stop doing business with the likes of scum like Opera Interactive. Then maybe you won't be so embarassed about who you are. But with a name like "The Mob Club" you clearly have no idea.


Arne said...

I feel your pain, the mobile subscriptions and content is a total mess in South Africa.

I had to help my elderly uncle and aunt get them of such a list where they unknowingly got subscribed, and being pensioners, each little rand is a lot.

I don't think the networks really want to come to the party, as you mentioned they are getting a piece of the cake.

johan said...

Somehow Vodacom or their franchisees sold my account details to spammers who cold call me with shit. Now they have used this info to steal R4.99 from my phone everyday.

Apparently I agreed to download tunes and stuff everyday.

Nirmal said...

I am facing a similar issue with Cell C Network, every day arount R15 is cut from my airtime, I did not realize until my R70 air time was shown as R11.57. I was told the money from my account is taken by a service called OPERA. My mistake was installing a Opera Browser on my Android phone (this browser is freeware by the way). Then Cell C gave me a phone number i can use to unsubscribe from the service and they (Cell C) are not responsible for activating/deactivating service, then i called OPERA (the thives). They have told me, it would take 24 hours for unsubscription.

Donn Edwards said...

Don't confuse the Opera Browser ( from Opera Interactive (, who are the thieves stealing your money. Go to the WASPA web site ( and you'll find the regulations they have to comply with. File a complaint, demanding a full refund, since you clearly had no idea you were "subscribed".

Dick said...

Thanks for posting this info. It explains how I probably got "subscribed". I just received my account today and discovered that I've been billed R143 by Opera telecom without my knowledge. I retraced my steps and found a message on Nov 8 suggesting I click on a link to win a prize. Then 3 messages inviting me to downlaod WAP content, all of which I ignored. I was at a meeting that night at that time and installed Tumblr on my mobile phone. Perhaps i also accidently cliched on an onscure ad.

Donn Edwards said...

@Dick Make sure you get a full refund from Opera, *and* file a complaint with WASPA. You are supposed to be told *every month* that they are deducting money from your account.

Anonymous said...

Yerp. Same thing happened here. What suprises me most is the reluctance of WASPA to nail these guys after repeated infringements. And how many people at this moment are getting ripped off in this fashion?

Anonymous said...

Every role player in this vicious cycle should be held responsible since they all share the spoils:

1. Government: They happily collect 14% VAT on all airtime. (They are however missing out on the much larger income tax loot, as seemingly most of these conspicuous WASP are set up in one tax haven or another. So in effect they are leashes that simply suck out value, but never contribute other than through the inescapable VAT provisions.)
2. Network Operators: Their benefit is obvious. (But I doubt they have seriously calculated the reputational damages.)
3. WASPS: Enough said.
4. WASPA represents its members and not you nor me. Their very foundation is a conflict of interest and the WASP operators serve on the exco's that determine the possible sanction that WASPA can impose.

The entire WASPA setup is seemingly designed to lull us into a false sense of security and protection.

I am going to make it my mission to bring an end to this. To join me, please email moveitmobile (at) gmail (dot)com. I will never share, nor spam your info. I simply want to build a activist community big enough so that not one of the aforementioned benefactors can afford to ignore or challenge us.