World Trademark ReviewMessaging apps, including WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram, should consider offering a trademark abuse reporting mechanism for brand owners to combat spam, according to a leading online brand protection firm. The call comes after new research suggests that spam offering counterfeit goods has become particularly prevalent on Facebook-owned WhatsApp in recent months.

Mobile security company Adaptive Mobile conducted research into the new trend of WhatsApp spam and posted the findings on its blog. It states that WhatsApp users, especially across Europe, are being targeted with “constant spam attacks”, with “fake handbag/luxury goods spam” the most commonly complained about on social media (examples here). In terms of where these messages emanate, it notes that recent regulation in India, which cracked down on SMS spam and led to mobile operators being fined for every incident reported by users, has seen many spammers moving to WhatsApp (due to the regulation not covering messaging applications). The blog post concludes: “The days of WhatsApp users assuming that they are immune from spam are drawing to an end, for the message is that as it becomes bigger, the more it is going to be a target for the spammers and criminals who have honed their skills on other, more established, messaging bearers.”

With WhatsApp now boasting over 700 million users and handling 30 billion messages a day, this is an issue that is only going to exasperate brands. Asked what brand owners can actually do to track and deal with WhatsApp spam, Jag Gill, managing director of Bishop Online Brand Protection, suggests that the first step is to find out if, and how, their brands are actually affected. He adds: “Brands need to go out and educate their clients or customers, in much the same way that banks educated their customers about phishing attacks. Banking companies sent out warnings to their customers saying that they ‘will never request information from customers about their bank accounts, and they should report any communication that does so’. A similar approach should be taken with spam on messaging apps. Many brand owners have a way to mass-contact customers or clients (including details garnered through loyalty cards, mailing lists or on social media), so they should reach out and say ‘if you receive a message via particular smartphone applications, you should let us know and avoid interacting with it because it could be harmful/unsafe’. Education is certainly key as a first step.”

While he also suggests that brand owners contact WhatsApp about whether there is the possibility of filtering spam, Adaptive Mobile’s research indicates that this may not be possible because of WhatsApp’s dedication to encrypted messages. The post explains: “End-to-End encryption means that messages are encrypted in transit from one handset to another, without the WhatsApp servers routing the message or any other entity being capable of decrypting the messages in transit. While laudable, there are trade-offs based on this decision, and in this case it also means that spam filters within the WhatsApp servers cannot extract features from encrypted WhatsApp message content in order to apply anti-spam content logic on the messages.”

There is some hope though, with Adaptive Mobile noting that “long term, promising methods like homomorphic encryption may offer WhatsApp the ability to filter the encrypted content at their servers. While great strides have been made recently in this, it’s still likely to take many years before it’s ready for widespread use”.

If preventing spam from being sent altogether is not possible in the short/medium term, Gill suggests that there is “no reason” why WhatsApp, and other messaging apps, cannot consider putting a mechanism in place to allow brand owners to report spam messages. This could be an online form, similar to what is currently available on social media or online marketplaces, where brand owners can notify WhatsApp about spam messages being sent to its customers. The two could then work together in finding a solution – a solution that helps both the brand owner and also WhatsApp users that are being bombarded with spam (many of which are venting their anger about this issue on social media).

World Trademark Review contacted WhatsApp and has not yet received a response.

Government crackdowns on spam being sent by SMS, plus the increased sophistication of spam filters on social media and email providers, means smartphone messaging applications could be the new platform of choice for spammers. If this happens, the messaging operators are going to need to find a way to control it – with the help of brand owners – or risk losing users at a rapid rate.

Tim Lince – 21 January 2015