How prostitution rings hijack your cellphone

By Yuen Yeuk-laam Source:Global Times Published: 2014-11-26 22:28:01

Photo: IC

"Feeling lonely? Chinese and foreign hotties room service is here for you. Students, office ladies, models, flight attendants, foreign girls, including Russians, Americans, French, Japanese and Koreans. Hotels, motels and apartments are all OK. Please call 155 XXXX XXXX."

Have you ever received this kind of text message? Spam text messages advertising prostitution are a nuisance to many people in the Chinese mainland. Cellphone users may find they receive this kind of text message every day around a similar time, and that they only receive them when they are in certain areas. They have not disclosed their phone number to any strangers, but their phones are still mysteriously reached by unknown people.

If you have also experienced this, then you have been within the range of a fake mobile base station. This is a device that can send out a powerful signal which forces all mobile phones in an area to disconnect from the legitimate base station set up by their mobile service provider and connect to it without the owners' consent. Sometimes, mobile users may be disconnected from their original service providers for around 10 seconds. Some even have to restart their phones in order to reconnect to their legitimate local base station.

The rising industry

Fake base stations have been growing in popularity in the mobile spam industry in recent years. These devices consist of a computer, a station box and a mast. When these three components are connected, spammers can input the message that they want to send, choose the number of phones they want to interfere with and pick which network they want to connect to.

Most fake base stations can affect phones within a radius of around a kilometer and can send more than 20,000 messages per hour.

"We can send out all kinds of messages, such as adverts for property, private tutoring, financial services, stocks and 'black ads.' You can also test out our services before you pay," a cellphone spammer based in Shanghai told the Global Times.

"Black ads" are what spam regarding prostitution or gambling are known as, while other kinds of spam messages are known as "white ads" in the industry.

Spammers often charge a high price, based on the number of days or hours that spam is sent for and the number of spam messages their client wants to send.

"We charge 0.05 yuan ($0.008) per message, but if you want to send a large amount, we can bargain and we can give you a discount," the Shanghai-based spammer said.

A Liaoning Province-based spammer told the Global Times that he charges 7,500 yuan per hour for 30,000 texts.

There are many spammers working alone, but there are also organized spam networks that can reach mobile phones all over China.

"We can provide spam text services to any city. Normally, we can send around eight millions texts a day. In Beijing, 5 or 6 million a day should not be a problem," an organized spam network told the Global Times.

Profitable business

Since fake base stations are not heavy devices, many spammers hide them inside their cars so they can send messages while they drive. Some book a room in a hotel and set up their fake base stations, which explains why mobile users may receive the same spam texts every day in the same area.

Many people become spammers due to the low financial barriers to entry into this industry. A fake base station costs less than 10,000 yuan. A single day's work of spamming can cover this cost. Therefore people are drawn to the large potential profits, despite spamming being illegal.

Xiang Ligang, CEO of the telecom information portal, told the Global Times that the lowered cost of the device and the desire to make money are the reasons why such spam has become ubiquitous.

"In the past, a fake base station cost between 200,000 and 300,000 yuan. The price has decreased dramatically. If you manage to send 1 million messages, you've already begun to earn money," he said.

Prostitution connection

Spam has also become an effective way for illegal businesses such as prostitution rings to find customers, as it is cheaper than traditional advertising methods and can reach more people over a broader area.

Several government bodies, including the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China and the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), have been working together this year to stop such illegal activities and eliminate the spam text message industry.

In April, 227 crimes related to fake base stations were discovered by police and over 250 suspects were arrested. Eight fake base station factories were shut down and 226 devices were seized.

The regulations state that people who use fake base stations may be charged with disrupting public services, while people who produce and sell such devices may be charged with running an illegal business.

"People who send spam text messages advertising prostitution could be charged with organized prostitution because he or she is considered as part of the group. In serious cases, convicts may be sent to prison for a minimum of five years," Dong Ran, a Shanghai-based lawyer, told the Global Times.

Dong also said that spammers who send "white ads" using fake base stations have violated government regulations.

However, Dong pointed out that spam service providers are not usually deterred by the threat of punishment because the profits they can make are worth the risks."I've been working for two years and haven't been caught once," a spammer based in Henan Province told the Global Times.

Liu Ancheng, director of the Criminal Investigation Department of the MPS, told the Beijing News earlier this year that it is difficult to disrupt the spam text message industry as spammers are hard to track.

"If police want to catch people who send spam, they need a detection device to identify fake base stations which could be hidden in a car or a motorbike," Xiang said.

The other thing is that the harm caused by spam is not really that serious, so police may not be willing to put a lot of effort into targeting spammers, Xiang added.

Xiang stressed that using and selling fake base stations is illegal and that it is affecting people's lives. "I hope that police will spend more money on detection so that the spam text message industry can be cracked down upon effectively."
Newspaper headline: Spam penetration

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