I Don’t Know If I Should Laugh or Cry

It’s been a frustrating evening.

About three weeks ago I received a surprise. I received a text message and a picture message from an unknown Arizona phone number. The text message looked like it was a piece of forwarded junk. You know the kind, some idiot receives a humorous picture by email and then forwards it to every poor idiot they know. That’s what this looked like, only it was via SMS/MMS from a phone number, not an email address.

The message said something like, “Somedays you feel like you butt is draggin'” or some other stupid reference to being tired or lethargic. The accompanying picture was an animated picture of a naked woman’s butt as she walked on a treadmill.

I must admit, it popped up on my iPhone while I was at lunch and I was quite surprised. It wasn’t what I’d call it “obscene”, but it certainly a tasteless and not-family-friendly image, and certainly not something I’d like popping up on my phone while I’m at work, either.

Because it came from a phone number within Arizona, and because I didn’t recognize the number, I assumed that some moronic jackass has forwarded this stupid message to me by mistake. I almost contacted him back, but then my suspicious nature got the better of me. E-mailers send out spam designed to look like a mistake in the hopes that people will respond, thus confirming their e-mail address. It would be far worse if that was what was happening with this message. SMS spam, unlike email spam, costs money.

I decided to let the matter pass and I deleted the message. I would rethink my course of action if I received more messages and could decide if it was an honest mistake or some cunning plan.

A week or so went by and I received no further messages. Then I received the second one. It followed the same pattern, the message looked as if it was forwarded but it came via SMS/MMS. Again it seemed like one for those jokey picture mails, but this time the picture was quite a bit worse. Suffice to say that the subject was “You’ve been bushwacked” and the picture featured a much more explicitly posed picture of a naked woman in desperate need of a bikini wax… or more likely, electric hedge trimmers. It was not a pretty sight. This time the picture popped up on my phone while I was at work. I deleted the picture, but this time I kept the SMS portion. It was also an Arizona (east valley) phone number and if it happened again, I wanted to know if they came from the same number. Now I was sure this was a scam to get me to reply.

Today, about a week later, I received a third. This time the message said something “Shut the f*** up, or I’ll stick my foot up you *ss” – the accompanying picture, again of a naked women, demonstrated in no uncertain way that such a feat (or should I say ‘feet’?) was anatomically possible.

It was time to take action. Not only am I now sure that the goal is to get a response, I’m convinced that it is a logical pattern. Each message gets more obnoxious and more obscene with each try. They know if they keep pushing something will give. I don’t even want to think what the next one might be!

So I called AT&T to see what could be done. After all, I have to pay for text messages, surely there’s something that can be done. Wouldn’t you think?

The AT&T rep was very sympathetic. I told her my tale, and she told be that, “Really there are only two things we can do. You could change your number, or we could setup a block on the offending phone number.

The later choice sounded much better to me and so she started to set it up for me. After we’d gone through quite a bit of the process, she dropped the bombshell: The can only block SMS messages, not MMS messages. In other words, they could only block the text not the pictures.

I expressed how ridiculous that was to the rep, and she was most apologetic, but totally useless.

I vented my frustration with AT&T on twitter. Then I called the police. Surely having someone harass me with obscene photos was something they could do something about.

Apparently not. The messages aren’t threatening enough. It seems; however, that if I get enough of them (although it’s unclear how many that is) they could “try making a harassment call”, which I assume means treating it like harassment and calling up the perp and giving them a stern talking to. The police were of little use unless this problem continues for some greater, but undetermined, length of time.

Then, the twitter gods smiled upon me. Or more specifically, some automated twitter scraper setup for or on the behalf of AT&T noticed my tweet rant and brought me to the attention of someone at AT&T whose job is apparently to help out when customers are publicly expressing their dissatisfaction with AT&T.

I hate the fact that we live in a world where the phrase, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” is true more often than not, but I was glad that someone was going to try to help. Big points to AT&T for that, at least. They were on it within an hour.

I laid out my story to the new AT&T rep via twitter and e-mail and he got with his colleagues and they discussed it. They sent me info on how to disable the pop up preview on the iPhone and more importantly, they took the offending number and promised to look into what could be done.

A while later, I got a call from the rep. He’d checked out the number and it was a prepaid cell phone from a company he’d never heard of. No real way to know who the person was, and nothing they could do about it. The only option available to me was to change my cell phone number, which they would graciously do for free under the circumstances. I’m not quite ready to abandon my phone number of 5-7 years just yet.

He was very nice and very sympathetic and I discussed with him that I thought it was ridiculous, from a technological standpoint, to believe that AT&T could block SMS messages, but couldn’t block MMS messages. He explained that the SMS message ride on the phone portion of the carrier channel while MMS message ride on the data portion – this, he explained, makes it impossible to block.

“Impossible” is clearly the wrong word because, ignorant though I am of cell phone technology, AT&T must, in some way, be routing that MMS message by phone number to my phone, and if they route it, there must be a way to block it. “impossible” in this case clearly means, “we don’t want to spend the money to set that up”, “It’s too much hassle” or any of a number of potential real reasons, but “impossible” as in “not possible to ever do” is clearly bullshit. I don’t blame the rep for this, it probably is impossible for him to set this up, but AT&T could find a way.

Whether I liked the explanation or not, I had it, so I pointed out that I was receiving 2 (actually 3) messages each time. The first was SMS, looking like a subject line, the second, the MMS picture and the third was the body of the message text. So, by turning preview off, I wan’t going to be “shocked” by any progressively more disturbing pictures – or worse, have my children see them. If I could get rid of the SMS part, that would help, so I told the rep I wanted to set the SMS block up.

…and he said, “Now comes the part you’re not going to like.”

Honest, that’s word-for-word what he said.

Apparently, setting up the ability to block SMS numbers costs $5 per month and the first rep never bothered to tell me.

Basically, I’m screwed. Surely this problem, and problems like it, warrant some mechanism to stop unwanted harassment without the solution being pain on the victims’ side!

I’m tempted to publish their number in this post so that Google will pick it up, in case anyone else is getting these messages from them.