A SPAMtacular failure in mobile communication

August 7, 2009 by Lisa Oshima | Consulting, Contest, Developers, Mobile, Monetization

I recently received an email from a start-up called USCORE who wanted to learn more about my consulting services.  USCORE aims to give high school sports teams who are filming games the ability to easily tag each play within the video with the name of each player involved.  Parents that can’t make their child’s game can sign up to receive MMS messages on their mobile phone that show any play their child was involved in real time.

As part of my due diligence, I agreed to see a demo of USCORE’s product.  After multiple assurances that my mobile number would be removed from their system after the demo and I would never be spammed, I provided USCORE with my mobile number so that they could show me their ‘powerful’ MMS feature.  Unfortunately, the MMS demo didn’t work.  And, yesterday, almost four weeks after I saw the initial demo, I learned how ‘powerful’ USCORE’s MMS feature was when I received at least 139 unsolicited MMS messages.

The messages came in one after the other – rendering my phone nearly un-useable.  After receiving the first 30 MMSes, I contacted USCORE’s founder letting him know about the problem and asking him to remove me from his database. Despite receiving assurances that the MMSes would eventually stop, the fun kept coming in batches…  I lost count after 139 MMS.  I got a brief apology and explanation saying they’d “fixed a bug” and the system “spit out a bunch or retrys” which sent MMSes to my phone.

Eventually they stopped, but communication throughout was poor.  I received so many MMS messages, that I called AT&T and asked them to block the number.  They said it would cost me $4.99 a month to bar a specific number and that could also bar all of my MMS service (which isn’t workable since I work in mobile).  So, I opted to temporarily switch to AT&T’s $55/month unlimited MMS, SMS + data plan.

Eventually I got an email from USCORE saying:

In striving to deliver a timely quality product, occasionally something goes wrong.  In this case, it just so happened that you bore the brunt of that error.  It was an unusual situation, and of all the users we have, you were the only “lucky” one.  As soon I realized the problem, I immediately shut down the sending of the messages to you.  Unfortunately, they go from us to a third party server that queues them, then that server sends them on to your phone’s service provider.  Thus, although we stopped them at the source, the messages that were already in the queue may be delivered to you.  We contacted the third party server as well, and notified him of the problem, so that he could empty the queue of anything that wasn’t already sent to your phone carrier.  Unfortunately, that’s all we can do.

USCORE says they’ll reimburse me for the MMSes, though I’m not optimistic.  I replied to their note yesterday, requesting a contribution towards reimbursement of my expenses and time via Paypal.  So far, no luck.

Every start-up deals with bugs and un-anticipated hiccups (just look at Twitter).  Having worked with many start-ups, occasional issues like this don’t usually bother me, but this situation was frustrating.  Communication about the reason for and extent of the problem while it was happening was minimal, and there was nothing I could do to stop MMSes from reaching my mobile phone – either with USCORE or AT&T.

My experience yesterday got me to thinking…

  1. Mobile operators like AT&T shouldn’t charge the victim of  SPAM to block a spammer. They should charge the spammer itself or block reported SPAM for its customers for FREE! As we become more and more attached to our mobile phones, we need more protection against spammers.
  2. US operators shouldn’t charge recipients for incoming SMS or MMS. The European operators I’m familiar with don’t charge the recipient, and I’ve always wondered why US consumers don’t demand the same of their operators.  You have no choice when someone sends you a message.  Imagine paying your email provider every time you received a SPAM email?!
  3. Communication with stakeholders during crisis is critical.  Most people are pretty forgiving, if you’re up-front when there is a problem, apologize profusely, explain how it happened and why it won’t happen again, offer to compensate people in some way for the problem, and follow-through on what you’ve said.
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