Keeping SMS spam and unsolicited subscriptions at bay on your Android smartphone

Android Messages Beta program

We’ve all been there. Busy trying to get our life together only for a phone buzz to interrupt whatever it is that we are up to. Eager to see what is up, you turn to your phone screen, unlock it in a hurry expecting something – maybe some good news. Someone finally said yes, or someone sent you some money, or…

Only that the opposite usually happens: it turns out to be a pointless message from a shortcode you’ve never heard of before. Or a name you’re all too familiar with. The brand name of an establishment you frequent. Or one that you just happened to have visited the other day and paid for the services they offered you using mobile money.

It’s annoying. It’s common. Everyone complains about it.

What did you do wrong? What could you have done differently to avoid the deluge of pointless messages hitting your SMS inbox?

Like in the example given above, maybe all that you did was shop at, say, a supermarket and then proceed to pay via M-Pesa. In that case, there’s not much you could’ve done differently, is there? I mean, we all love the convenience of getting into a store before boarding the matatu home or getting home without having to check if we’ve carried any cash with us. Shopping and paying using our phones. So, that’s not going to change.

That may not be the case for other instances where you provide your personal details, including your phone number, only for the parties responsible for handling all that information you provide to misuse it. In such cases, you can choose to either be extra vigilant or be adamant to provide your personal information to just about anyone asking for it.

Whichever the case, there are several courses of action you can take to minimize the SMS spam that lands in your inbox.

1. Using the tried and tested Stop keyword

You have probably done this before if you have ever contacted a service provider like Safaricom asking for a way to deal with some subscriptions you don’t ever remember opting into.

Before embarking on any other way to keep the unsolicited subscriptions at bay, it is highly recommended that one just responds to the offending message with the word “Stop”.

As per guidelines that the people behind any services that end up texting you abide by, they are supposed to let you know that invoking the “Stop” keyword will result in an immediate unsubscription/opt-out from the service and this should almost always work. Just be sure to check the offending message for any instructions on how to opt-out. Some need users to add something else to “Stop”.

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The only downside to this method is in instances where such an action results in you being charged. Worse off, being charged a premium rate.

2. Use the *100# shortcode

The 100 service is the portal to all of the services offered by Safaricom and provides an easy way to opt-in or out to a number of services. In instances where for some reason or the other your phone number happens to be subscribed to services you may not have authorised, it’s the best place to start.

Just dial *100# and look for the promotional messages option in the resultant menu list. Or something similar. Like, for instance, the way the menu list is organized as of the time of writing this, there is both premium rate services and promotional messages under the “My Subscriptions” menu. Both are a constant source of pain for those that don’t subscribe to them. Going to either allows one to see any actively running services as well as providing the option to opt-out.

It’s a bit of a lengthy and unnecessary process since no one should be opting you into services you didn’t consent to and sending you lots of communication on the same – that may even be resulting in some charges – in the first place but hey, here we are, what are we to do?

3. Install Android Messages

Lately, I have turned to something else to help keep spammers, especially those “Kamiti types”, at bay: Google’s SMS app.

Android Messages has been a big beneficiary of Google’s insistence on mastering the messaging space. With Allo, its other trial at a messaging app, having failed, Google has been bringing some of its features, especially its AI-centric ones, to Messages.

As such, Android Messages now has features like smart (suggested) replies, Google Assistant integration, desktop mirroring, auto-detecting messages from authentication services and providing an easy way to copy and paste the verification codes and even automatic spam detection, as I found out the other day. Heck, in Android 10 we are even getting “recommended actions” (not to be confused with the already live “suggested actions” feature) and there should be more features under testing occasionally for those who bother to enrol in the beta.

You know the app is impressive if I have since climbed down from my tough stand on it.

It is the automatic spam detection that we are interested in. Since unsolicited messages and any other spam content is usually not sent to just one person (isn’t that what makes it spam anyway?), Google is able to flag the offending senders real quick and as soon as a message that has all pointers of being something you probably have no business seeing, it will be flagged as such. Simple.

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One only needs to install the application from the Play Store in the event that it isn’t pre-installed on their device (it’s pre-installed on Tecno, Infinix, Huawei and Nokia smartphones sold in the country and is the default messaging app) then make sure that they have enabled spam protection in the app’s settings (Settings > Advanced > Spam protection).

A big advantage of relying on Android messages is the ability to flag alphanumeric senders. You know, those SMS senders that don’t use numbers. Like, how do you block that neighbourhood convenience store that keeps texting you yet they don’t use a number (at least one that you can see) like everyone else? Android Messages itself won’t even let you reply to them so how are you going to send that Stop keyword?

One disadvantage is that while the app will automatically flag any unsolicited messages it is not the be-all. If you’ve been subscribed to a service that probably deducts money from your credit then you’ll need to use any of the above 2 options in order to opt-out and stop losing money.

What it does best is exactly what an email spam filter does: flag suspicious messages for further action. Since it is SMS we are talking about, these messages still make their way to your inbox for review (just in case the spam detectors are wrong so that you don’t miss any important message). However, while reviewing them, you can choose to have the offending number flagged for good and you’ll never have to deal with messages from it ever again – or until you ditch Android Messages for another messaging app. Why would you do that though?

Messages
Messages
Developer: Google LLC
Price: Free

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com