Unions and stores disown spam attack;

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Thousands of Nextel customers get text messages urging support of grocery pickets.

Orange County Register (California)

They were the type of wake-up calls you never want to get — unsolicited text messages that cause your cell phone to ring, buzz or chime in the wee hours of the night.

But their topic was timely: the 13-day supermarket strike.

Since Tuesday, unknown spammers have sent text messages to thousands of Nextel wireless customers, urging them to support pickets and boycott grocery stores. Many have come in the middle of the night.

It’s probably the biggest-ever incident of spamming to cell-phone customers, said Roger Entner, a text-messaging expert with the Yankee Group in Boston.

”This is much more toxic than just sending spam over the Internet,” Entner said. ”A lot of people have to pay to receive these messages. It’s not just like on your computer where it costs you time; here it costs you money.”

Nextel hasn’t caught the perpetrator or figured out how many customers were hit by the spam, except to say that they number in the thousands. It’s the only major cell-phone company that said it was targeted by this round of unwanted text messages that were disguised as text messages from other Nextel customers.

Union officials say their hands are clean, as did a spokesman for Ralphs, one of the grocery chains involved in the dispute.

The messages said: ”Support the strike/Don’t buy from the market/www.ufcw.org NOW/Egg-on Teamsters and CWA to strike.”

Regardless of the sender’s motives, the tactic may be undermining the cause of the union members.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union received a phone call from a man who received three of the messages in the middle of the night, said Greg Conger, president of Local 324 in Buena Park. The man said he planned to start shopping at the stores involved in the dispute, which are Vons, Pavilions, Ralphs and Albertsons.

”We’re sure not doing it,” Conger said. ”Why would we do something like that?”

Nextel may be the only victim among the major cell- phone companies because it’s the last to install a system for combating text-message spam. It went online last week, and the carrier has tightened its filters since this week’s
attack, said company spokeswoman Mila Fairfax.

Tom Dresslar, a spokesman for the state attorney general, declined comment on whether any laws were broken.

Spam is a sensitive topic for Nextel.

A consumer group Tuesday sued the company, claiming that a recent decision to stop mailing out itemized bills made it difficult for customers to distinguish charges for spam messages from legitimate text messages.

Nextel has declined to discuss the suit, filed by the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.

Although Nextel doesn’t publish the phone numbers of its customers, it’s relatively easy to identify those numbers by reviewing public data on numbers it’s been granted by the Numbering Pooling Administration, which doles out numbers to wireless carriers.

The administration’s Web site makes it easy to track customers by area because it lists them in blocs of 1,000 by carrier for each area code and three-digit exchange code.

”Spam messages on wireless are just like spam messages on your home computer system,” said Nextel spokeswoman Fairfax. ”They are generated by a third party and distributed over the wireless network in the same way.”
Register staff writer Andrew Galvin contributed to this report.
Contact the author at: (714) 796-6927 or [email protected]

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