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Managing Partner and CEO of enterprise messaging specialists Messente Uku Tomikas here discusses the growing issue of ‘artificially inflated traffic’ (AIT) with regards to SMS, explaining exactly what it is and why it is such a pernicious threat to the ecosystem.

I’ve been on about AIT for quite some time now – sharing content on social media, advising clients and talking with peers at events, even joining panels. Yet it seems the more we talk about it, the bigger the revelations get.

At WWC in Madrid this year I learned that not only are big players and smaller players doing it, but that large enterprises use it to boost their user count – makes sense for them to spend peanuts on showing user growth to boost their stock price. The most surprising thing, however, was when I was approached by an MVNO offering to sell me their number range for AIT purposes.

With so many different factions in this game reaping the benefits, more and more companies are being encouraged and even pressured to follow suit. Especially taking into consideration the ballooning SMS prices, the improving filters cracking down on SIM and SS7 usage and the enterprises themselves pushing for lower prices amid rising costs.

Why is AIT a special kind of menace?

As opposed to using SIM-s or SS7-s for delivery, the customers still pay for the messages they intended to send – they know how much to expect from their marketing efforts or from deliveries, they know what their usual traffic every month should be. Even if the delivery is affected, they are still paying for a fixed amount they set and will know of delivery issues quite quickly. With AIT though there is no upper limit and the results for the customer can be surprising in terms of how far the traffic can be inflated.

When a client is no longer paying for the planned amount of SMS, but gets an invoice 10x the size expected with none of the needed returns, they start seeing SMS as a lower value tool than it is. With diminished ROI comes diminished usage and the industry takes a hit as a whole.

About half a year ago we started working with a Scandinavian e-commerce company that at the time send around 300k SMS per month. Once we started servicing the traffic, we started seeing issues in the traffic profile and the high failure rate.

So, we asked them if they could use recaptcha on their side. Using recaptcha helps reduce the efficiency of the AIT attacks as it adds a layer of human verification to the process that is hard to automate, especially at scale. The result was a decrease of monthly SMS from 300k to 30k.

They were being inflated 10x. They also paid 10x the cost of their usual budget and hence we’re looking to switch providers in the first place.

When a client is no longer paying for the planned amount of SMS, but gets an invoice 10x the size expected with none of the needed returns, they start seeing SMS as a lower value tool than it is. With diminished ROI comes diminished usage and the industry takes a hit as a whole.

Smaller local carriers take the hit and clients will leave

AIT is a bit similar to using SIM-s for SMS delivery – they aren’t very hard to implement, but fighting against usage is much harder. Especially when the inflation isn’t as ridiculous as in the above-mentioned scenario. To find instances of AIT we’ve had to build new detection algorithms, and use machine learning to find patterns and we still don’t catch enough of the cases.

Most companies however do not have the resources to build these features – especially the ones who are closest to the enterprises – the smaller local carriers. However, they  quite often end up being the ones who need to explain why the invoice is 10x compared to the previous month and why the business is being charged for 8000€ worth of messages to Burundi when the business operates only in Poland.

It is true however that the biggest reason why AIT exists is that the clients themselves have left the security holes that enable AIT unplugged. A valid argument, yet customers will first look to us for a solution, rather than build costly and UX damaging features on their side to combat AIT. Hence it is seen and will be seen as an issue we have to work on fixing.

So, when you combine AIT with the explosive rise in prices over the past few years, the new registries and registry procedures coming up, and the need to whitelist more and more content – it seems we as an industry might be in for a rough ride during this economic downturn if our clients no longer see SMS as the valuable tool that it is.

Uku Tomikas

Managing Partner/ CEO – Messente

One Comment

  • Kevin Holley says:

    This doesn’t explain what AIT is and also introduces the term “recaptcha” without explaining it.

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