Vietnam telecom companies urged to get tough on spamming

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Experts at a recent anti-spamming conference urged local telecom companies to take action to deal with tens of billions of advertising text messages that currently inundate mobile phone users in Vietnam each year.

Vu Quoc Khanh, director of the Vietnam Computer Emergency Response Team (VNCERT) with the Ministry of Information and Communication, said incomplete reports from local telecom companies showed that most of the SMS advertisements were sent by the companies themselves.

"Therefore, the companies must take responsibility in the fight against spam," Khanh told the conference held by the ministry in Hanoi on Monday. 

Six companies, with a total of 120.7 million subscribers, are currently licensed to provide mobile phone service in Vietnam; they work with 347 communication service providers (CSP), according to information released at the conference.

The CSPs, in turn, work with tens of "satellite" companies that disseminate up to 10,000 spam messages to mobile phone subscribers per hour.

Less than three percent of the messages from CSPs are "legal," Khanh said.

Most of spam messages instruct mobile phone users to download games and illicit content. They also deceive users with notices that they have won awards or received gifts from an unknown sender.

According to Khanh, the VNCERT has cooperated with telecom companies to handle nearly 300 spamming cases since 2009. More than 50 businesses have been fined a total of VND2.4 billion (US$114,000).

Three others have been suspended from providing communication services, he added.

In response to the call for action, Le Dang Dung, deputy director general of the military Viettel one of the country's three telecom giants together with Mobifone and Vinaphone said that telecom companies, "not anyone else," will protect their subscribers.

He said the anti-spam SMS system that his company is applying controls to approximately 60 percent of total text messages, and that it will be upgraded in the future to handle 100 percent of them.

Nghiem Phu Hoang, representative of the Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group, which manages both Mobifone and Vinaphone, also said they are applying their own system that filters spam based on keywords and the frequency with which they are sent.

However, Hoang also said that the reality is still very "complicated" because after the group was able to control spam messages sent out by certain service providers, spammers have switched to using activated prepaid SIM cards.

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The cards are considered "junk SIM" in Vietnam. Tens of millions of spam messages are estimated to be sent from junk SIM cards a day.

Diminishing returns

An expert who wished to stay unnamed told Thanh Nien that the fight against spamming is "a story that will not end soon," given that telecom companies' profits are "closely aligned" with CSPs.

He said profits from services are divided between telecom companies and CSPs with the former getting 55-75 percent.

For instance, telecom companies earn at least VND8,000-10,000 every time a mobile phone user spends VND15,000 ($0.71) to send an SMS to a service number, the expert explained.

Throughout the world CSPs tend to receive 70-90 percent of services' profits, with telecom companies getting the rest, a report on Sai Gon Tiep Thi news website quoted a statistics as saying on Thursday.

Not to mention that in Vietnam, telecom companies usually require CSPs to earn at least VND30 million ($1,425) a month, or they will have their contracts terminated, effectively forcing them to disperse spam in order to achieve the target, the news report said.

The statistics also showed that last year Viettel earned nearly VND4.4 trillion ($209.2 million) from communication services, it added. Meanwhile, Mobifone and Vinaphone earned nearly VND1.5 trillion ($71.3 million) and some VND1.22 trillion ($52.02 million) respectively.

On the other hand, Vietnamnet quoted a representative of Viettel as saying that telecom companies will not hesitate to get tough on spamming, just because of billions of dong they can earn from it per day.

In fact, value added services account for "just" 10-15 percent of telecom companies' turnover, he said, adding that Viettel can earn up to VND300-400 billion ($14.25-19 million) a day.

In other words, he said, cutting sales from spam SMSs will not affect the earnings of big telecom companies.

The unnamed representative also admitted that it had been "an incorrect viewpoint" that led to reckless management of the spamming situation, but telecom companies have changed their view for the sake of their "brand prestige."

When users get annoyed by spam messages, it is very likely that they will complain about their providers, he explained.

Once they become dissatisfied, they will likely change networks, so in the end telecom companies will suffer the most, the representative was quoted as saying.

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