Skip to main content

In this guest post, Azat Eloyan, Chief Marketing Officer at Dexatel, explains the issue of SMS pumping – what is it, why is it a problem and how can the mobile ecosystem address it.

Technological advancements have made it easier to automate the sending of mass messages, which—when you think about it—is great news for business. But as mobile networks evolved and premium-rate SMS services became available, it created an opportunity for malicious actors to exploit these services for financial gain—that’s what didn’t cross your mind.  Among the many threats, SMS pumping stands out for its capacity to disrupt operations, erode customer trust, and inflict financial harm.

As Chief Marketing Officer at Dexatel, this is an issue I’m always addressing. This sophisticated form of fraud requires advocating for a robust, multi-faceted defense strategy that comprises technological innovation, regulatory enforcement, and widespread education.

How Big of a Threat is SMS Pumping?

SMS pumping is an illicit practice that exploits text messaging services for unauthorized gains. No, it’s not just annoying—it is a calculated attack on the integrity of mobile networks and the enterprises that rely on them. It can lead to financial losses for people as they may be charged for receiving unsolicited messages. Not to mention, it contributes to network congestion, which impacts overall communication efficiency.

Anyone can fall victim to an SMS pumping scheme, even Elon Musk. The latter disclosed that X, previously known as Twitter, faced losses exceeding $60 million from fraudulent text messages. Hackers exploited this attack technique, which only highlighted the widespread vulnerability to SMS pumping across various sectors

These kinds of messages may contain harmful content like phishing, malware, and fake registration attempts, which puts recipients’ personal information at risk. It undermines the trust and integrity of SMS services. When users lose faith in the reliability of SMS, it can have broader implications for communication and commerce.

Perpetrators of this fraud exploit system vulnerabilities to flood networks with bulk unsolicited messages. Their goal is to profit from these activities or sabotage businesses. The consequences are plenty—think increased operational costs, degraded network performance, and potential breaches of consumer trust and privacy.

The relative digital anonymity makes it easier for fraudsters to operate without immediate consequences. They can send large volumes of messages from virtual numbers, which makes it challenging to trace and apprehend them. And, with the widespread use of mobile phones and SMS globally, attackers can target a vast audience with minimal effort. This global reach increases the potential impact of SMS pumping schemes.

In some regions, inadequate regulations or enforcement measures against SMS fraud can also create an environment where attackers can operate with relative impunity. The absence of strict controls makes it easier for these activities to flourish, and that’s why it’s more important than ever to protect your organization from these attempts.

How and Why Fraudsters Do It

The most common SMS pumping scheme involves creating fake registrations to random numbers solely to generate artificial traffic. Malicious parties register fake accounts and send unwanted messages to random phone numbers.

This disrupts normal SMS services and inflates traffic metrics falsely. And to maintain the integrity of SMS communications, these kinds of activities must be detected and blocked as soon as possible.

Good, old-fashioned scammers are the ones who usually do SMS pumping. They want to benefit by tricking the system—for example, by making it look like there’s more traffic than there actually is. This can lead to financial gains for them or cause disruptions in SMS services. They achieve this by creating fake registrations with random numbers. By doing so, they get to exploit weaknesses in the SMS system.

What Steps to Take as an Enterprise

The top priority for any enterprise is selecting a reliable SMS provider. Look for a provider that implements advanced measures to detect and block artificial traffic. You should partner with a provider that’s fully committed to transparency—one that does not engage in any form of pumping strategies.

Dexatel uses advanced measures to block artificial traffic. This, paired with the country-blocking feature, allows you to enhance your security measures—you can simply block destinations where your enterprise has no activities so you have an extra layer of security when it comes to SMS pumping defenses.

Responding to SMS Pumping Incidents

If you suspect that your organization is experiencing SMS pumping, you have to take immediate action to minimize the risks as soon as possible.

First, you have to notify your SMS provider about the suspicious activity so they can help investigate the issue and implement measures to block fraudulent messages.

Then, you must continuously monitor your SMS traffic for unusual patterns or spikes to identify the extent of the pumping activity. Consider implementing rate limiting or traffic shaping measures to control the volume of messages being sent from your organization’s account.

Rate limiting is when you set a maximum threshold for the number of SMS messages that can be sent within a specific timeframe. Once this limit is reached, any further attempts to send messages are either delayed or downright rejected.

Traffic shaping, on the other hand, is when you control the flow or pacing of SMS messages for regulated transmission. This helps prevent sudden spikes or unusual patterns in message delivery.

If the SMS pumping activity appears to be coordinated, you can involve law enforcement authorities. They can investigate the matter further and take appropriate action against the perpetrators.

You should also guide your users on how to identify and report suspicious SMS messages. Educating them about common phishing tactics can help prevent further exposure.

As for your organization, take this opportunity to review your security practices and policies. Identify any gaps or weaknesses and take steps to strengthen your defenses against future attacks.

How to Create a Multi-Pronged Defense Strategy

Addressing SMS pumping requires a combination of technological solutions. These include spam filters and monitoring systems, as well as legal measures to deter fraudulent practices and hold perpetrators accountable. You also need to implement public awareness campaigns to deter fraudsters and protect users from the negative consequences of SMS pumping.

1. Use Fraud Detection Technologies

AI and machine learning can spot odd SMS patterns by learning what’s normal—they notice if you’re suddenly getting a lot more messages or unusual content. These systems can tell the difference between normal and suspicious behavior. If they see something strange, they raise a red flag for a closer look. These models keep learning and adjusting to new tricks from scammers.

2. Implement Dynamic Rate Limiting and Traffic Shaping

Instead of just setting fixed limits, smart systems can adjust in real time based on what’s happening. This helps to catch and stop unusual increases in SMS activity, like in SMS pumping. It’s more flexible than the usual limits, so it can tell the difference between normal and suspicious messages.

3. Enhance Authentication Protocols and Secure Messaging Channels

Strengthening SMS security is crucial in fighting these kinds of attacks. Start by adding multi-factor authentication to make it harder for unauthorized users to access SMS services, so that only legitimate users can use these services.

SMS pumping often targets real accounts, but with stronger authentication, it’s tougher for attackers to take control and misuse them.

Enhanced security also protects user privacy, especially important as SMS pumping can involve phishing and other harmful activities. It also meets regulatory standards for data protection, which shows a commitment to keeping SMS services safe and compliant.

4. Conduct Comprehensive Security Audits and Penetration Testing

Regular security checks and tests find hidden weaknesses early so they stop potential problems. These help you strengthen your defenses. For example, penetration testing simulates real-world situations and shows how well you can handle SMS pumping attempts. This way, you can improve your response plans.

Doing these security checks isn’t just a one-time thing. They help create a culture of always getting better at cybersecurity. Independent tests by outside experts also confirm that your security measures are solid. Having an external viewpoint is necessary to spot any gaps and make sure your internal checks are thorough.

5. Foster a Culture of Security Through Education and Training

As an organization, you want to promote a security-conscious environment to safeguard against fraud. To do this, conduct regular training sessions to educate employees about the risks of SMS pumping and the role they play in maintaining security. Focus on recognizing phishing attempts, understanding social engineering tactics, and promoting a cautious approach to SMS communications.

You can tailor training modules to the specific risks and challenges associated with SMS pumping in your industry—provide real-life examples to make the training more relevant. You should also develop and communicate clear security policies regarding the use of SMS within the organization so employees can report suspicious activities and adhere to security best practices.

6. Promote Regulatory Collaboration and Compliance

Encouraging better rules that make carriers, service providers, and regulators work together helps everyone. It creates standards that everyone follows to stop SMS fraud, including pumping schemes.

When regulations are stronger, it makes it easier to catch and punish people doing fraudulent things like SMS pumping. Clear rules also make sure that everyone in the industry follows the same guidelines set by regulators. This way, organizations have a clear standard to meet.

7. Use Advanced Number Scoring and Reputation Management

Using smart algorithms to score phone numbers based on behavior blocks messages from risky sources. Positive reputations allow, while negative ones may face extra scrutiny.

Customizing scoring for SMS pumping indicators fine-tunes defenses and reduces false positives. Advanced scoring ensures real messages aren’t wrongly blocked.

8. Engage in Global Information Sharing and Threat Intelligence

Now, this strategy is an underrated one. Getting involved in global forums exposes you to a wider range of threats. You get access to timely alerts and updates on the latest developments in SMS fraud so can quickly adapt to new threats and be 10 steps ahead of fraudsters.

With collaborative efforts in the industry, we can all collectively respond to threats and have a more comprehensive perspective on the geographical spread and variations of SMS pumping. Shared threat intelligence also helps find common indicators of SMS pumping across various networks and platforms and assess the severity of the risks.

The Call to Action for a Unified Front

A collective stance sends a strong message of deterrence to potential SMS pumping perpetrators. Knowing that the industry is united in combating fraud makes it less likely for them to try anything tricky, which helps lower the risk for all of us.

When everyone in the mobile industry shares what we know, we become smarter at understanding these threats. Users feel safer when they see us all working together to protect them. By collaborating, we avoid redundancies and use our resources better to tackle this problem.

At Dexatel, we lead the way by offering top-notch communication solutions focused on security and reliability. Our commitment extends beyond our services. We believe in working together with partners and sharing information to create a trustworthy mobile communication environment for everyone.

Fighting SMS pumping is a constant effort. To stay secure, we need to be ready for new challenges. We know SMS security is always changing, and together, we can be prepared and make sure mobile communication stays safe in the future.

Azat Eloyan

Chief Marketing Officer

All opinions expressed in guest posts belong solely to the author and do not reflect the opinions of MEF or other MEF Members.

Join The Discussion