Telcos handed stronger powers to block scam text messages

The federal government will give telcos more power to identify and block scam texts, but says unsolicited messages sent from political parties are another matter.

File photo of a woman using her smartphone.

Text message scams are rising in Australia. Source: Yui Mok/PA Wire

Telecommunications companies' power to block scam text messages will be strengthened amid heightened concerns over the threat posed by an increase in malicious activity.

The regulatory change announced by the federal government on Monday will allow network providers to have greater access to data underpinning scams, and to more effectively clamp down on this behaviour.

But the federal government said concerns around unsolicited messages sent from political parties like Clive Palmer's United Australia Party are a separate matter.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said the regulatory change would give telcos the power to use their technology to identify and block scam messages at the source.

“We know this is a very significant issue that affects many Australians,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“The fact is we’re dealing with organised criminals - mostly located overseas - that are pumping out calls and texts at volume at significant volume.”

The action comes as SMS and phone scam reported to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's Scamwatch doubled this year, resulting in $87 million in losses.

Concerns have also been recently raised that culturally and linguistically diverse communities are increasingly falling victims to scams, as well as people from Indigenous communities. 


Mr Fletcher would not give a direct figure on how many more potential scams the new regulations would amount to, but said he expected “very significant numbers” to be blocked from the change.

Scamwatch's latest data shows financial losses to scams increased by 87 per cent to $236 million between 1 January and 31 October this year.

The data included 59,875 reports of scam text messages during the period, amounting to losses of more than $8 million.

This compared to 32,336 reports in 2020, which amounted to losses of over $3 million.

Telstra CEO Andy Penn said the telco companies had witnessed a “very significant increase in the level of malicious activity”.

“What this initiative does is it enables us much better access to the data that we need to use with algorithms and artificial intelligence engines to better identify those SMSes that are malicious,” he told reporters. 

Craig Kelly and the United Australia Party have been accused of sending unsolicited text messages to Australians.
Source: Supplied/Twitter

Mr Fletcher was asked if the federal government would take stronger action on messages sent from political parties - such as unsolicited texts from Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party in recent months - that have included sharing incomplete extracts of COVID-19 vaccine adverse event reports.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has alleged the party's messages have breached copyright and demanded that it stop distributing the content that “could be seriously misleading”.

But the communications minister said the text messages sent in a political context were a different matter.

“I would draw a distinction between the issue that we have here,” he said.

“We need to think carefully about the implied freedom of political communication.”

Labor has urged stronger action against the threat posed by scammers, saying if elected, it would set up a National Anti-Scam Centre to act as a “one-stop shop” for people to report their concerns. 

Published 29 November 2021 at 12:24pm
By Tom Stayner
Source: SBS News