Conning Kids

I was paying last month’s cellphone bill this week and found a charge I didn’t recognize on Simon’s phone. He’s 11, and shouldn’t be incurring extra charges. He did have a couple of games that Vicki told him he could download, but this wasn’t one of them.

AT&T couldn’t tell me anything about the charge. That seems odd; they apparently have the right to put something on my bill without giving me any justification. The operator did tell me how to find out who’d originated it (“google SJA Mobile”). So I did, and found SJA Mobile’s website. Interestingly absent is any useful information, like what they do, or what I could be paying for. Though they do offer a “no questions asked” refund.

Googling further becomes more interesting. There are dozens of blogs that claim that SJA Mobile provides a useful service, but none of them say what it is. Paid advertising? Dunno, it seems to me that without identifying the service you’re not going to sell much. Yet, for the same reason, they’re unlikely to be unsolicited testimonials.

The only site I found that gave me anything of interest was Skydeck’s blog, here and here. The text and comments make it pretty clear that SJA Mobile is or is involved in scamming. SJA initiated billing the blog writer after sending him the text message ”… “, with no action on his part. It seems that SJA Mobile is perpetrating cramming.

In my case, though, there was a reason behind the cramming. I was reluctant to follow SJA Mobile’s procedure to get my “no questions asked” refund, because I felt it would be implicitly legitimizing their charge. On the other hand, I didn’t really want to ask AT&T to remove the charge as disputed, when there was any possibility that it might be legitimate. So I did follow the SJA procedure, requested a refund, and texted STOP to the SJA number.

In response to the STOP, I got a text message from “ultimate-game-cheats.net” saying I was unsubscribed. I asked Simon, and he said yes, he’d given them his cell number to get help with a computer game. (Aside: never use a paid service for a computer game when GameFaqs.org has everything you’d ever need.) He said he’d been unable to get off the list, and didn’t know that it was costing us money.

Ultimate-game-cheats is not obfuscating the fact that signing up is $10/month. Not much, anyway. Certainly the “enter your cell # for the site password” is in much bigger and brighter text than the fine print, but the fine print is quite readable, It even mentions the subscription fee in two places.

Does that make the site and the charges legitimate? Well, that’s the reason I’m posting this. I don’t think so, and I think there’s a nasty near-scam going on here, abetted by AT&T and the other carriers who allow SJA Mobile billing rights.

I readily acknowledge that the charge was initiated by Simon’s providing the cell #, even though the site says that there will be a recurring $9.99 charge, that you must be 14 years or older, and that you must have your parents’ permission.

However, the company (ultimate-game-cheats) takes no steps to verify age. Yeah, it’s not an easy thing to do, but here it’s non-existent. Some sites (“adult” sites) require credit cards partly as an age verification mechanism. A cell # doesn’t even begin to imply adulthood or financial responsibility. Plenty of kids have cellphones. I’m fairly sure that a Texas court wouldn’t hold that an 11-year-old kid clicking on a link (even one that says don’t click unless you’re 14) would satisfy the legal requirement for establishing a contract.

I see no indication on the page that this is a real service. I see nowhere to enter the password that the company claims it will send. Perhaps the text message includes other access instructions – or perhaps it is entirely a scam.

Even if not, the site targets kids, encourages them to sign up, committing their parents to paying. If this isn’t exactly a scam, it’s at least misleading.

SJA Mobile has a duty to ensure that the charges that they bill to AT&T on behalf of Ultimate-game-cheats is legitimate. Clearly they do not do that.

AT&T apparently is willing to charge a customer based on zero justification for the charge from SJA Mobile. I’m sure that their contact with SJA Mobile requires that SJA authenticates its charges, but I’m not a party to that agreement, SJA doesn’t authenticate, and AT&T doesn’t police. So I’m left financially responsible for a specious charge.

Two aspects of this system particularly disturb me. First, that I don’t have a way to opt out. AT&T has no provision for me to say “don’t add third-party charges to my bill.” They’re free to add whatever they want, and I have to either pay or challenge it. My cell # has been turned into a payment ID, like a credit card, but unlike a credit card, I can’t cut it up and throw it away. I’m part of a new monetary system that I didn’t sign up for, and don’t want.

The second is a corollary to the first. Since a cell # has become a source of credit funding, any kid with a cell phone now has access to their parents’ funds. Subject to reading the bill’s details (how many parents know to do that? Or are likely to wade through every line? My bill was twelve pages) parents could well be funding all kinds of illicit activities. Possibly canceling text messaging would solve the problem – if the end provider was responsible enough to require receipt of a text message. (The “…” text would argue against that always being the case.) But texting is a given for kids these days.

Until the phone companies install a rational opt-in system for third-party charges, I have no option but to scrutinize and challenge every bill, and to warn others to do the same. Maybe I’m becoming increasingly a Luddite, but this is a payment system that I don’t want to be a part of.

Update:

The link to ultimate-game-cheats.net has changed today. Instead of the signup page that was present two days ago, there’s a page that says “new registrations are temporarily unavailable due to routine maintenance.” There is a login page, with a password, which does imply that the game cheats service may be real.

One Comment

  1. Posted May 13, 2008 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    hi, my name is also iain. whilst browsing the internet for other members of the iain community, i stumbeld across this here website, and was pleasantly surprised with what i found.

    i believe your topics of discussion (although none are in anyway relevant to me) are interesting, and helpful if i were ever to come across such predicaments.

    your ability to both inform and entertain is quite enjoyable, and i will no doubt be a regular to this site from now on. keep up the good blog work, and keeping the iain name alive and prominent on the world wide web.

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