All of us have probably had an SMS scam message appearing on our phones – that strange, unexpected, garbled and invasive message with an invitation to click on the link to what is potentially a malicious website. But as SMS scams become more common, we’ve been working on a solution.

The number of SMS scams hitting Australians’ phones continues to escalate. This year Telstra has received 11,100 SMS scam reports from customers compared to just 50 in 2020. This explosion is due in large part to the cybercrime campaign known as FluBot, a clear example of how technology is evolving and criminals are getting smarter.

To get ahead of the challenge, our technology solutions are also evolving, and we are developing a new cyber safety capability to help turn the tables on the scammers targeting Australians. The tool is designed to automatically detect and block scam SMS messages as they travel across our network, stopping them before they reach your mobile phone.

This new technology is complex but in simple terms it applies knowledge of what a scam SMS looks like as it travels across our network and if it looks suspicious it will block it. It does this by automatically scanning the content of messages to find suspicious patterns and characteristics, along with other data including time, sender, number of messages sent, and recipient.

We are currently running a pilot of this capability inside Telstra, so that any scam SMS messages sent to our people help ‘train’ the systems to spot the difference between a legitimate and a malicious SMS. The more scams it sees the smarter it will get.

During the pilot, which we will extend to our employees’ family and friends volunteers in the coming month, there will be times when the technology will require manual intervention. A small technical team will access the platform to review suspected scam messages where the recipient data is removed and not identifiable to protect privacy.

Update: This post has been updated to reflect that only recipient data is removed during the manual review process. The sender data is still visible to our team, as this information is required to block potential spam messages.

The platform is also set up so it cannot be used for any other purpose. It is secured to the same high standard as the rest of our network, with access restricted and logged. Once the system reaches the point where it can accurately and effectively block the majority of scam SMS we plan to enable it across our mobile network, probably early next year.

This latest capability is part of our Cleaner Pipes initiative to use our network expertise to proactively protect our retail customers, businesses and the nation more broadly against cybercrimes and scams. We are now blocking 13 million scam voice calls on average per month on our network and now we are ramping up our focus on scam SMS messages with this new technology.

Even with all of this work, it is important to understand that this will not be a foolproof solution to scams; no technology is perfect, malicious actors will continue to find new methods to attempt to scam Australians, and SMS will likely continue to be a part of that. We all need to remain alert to the possibility that when we receive an unexpected message it may not be genuine.

As we expand our proactive capability to detect and block scams in all their forms on our network, across phone and SMS and email, we will be able to keep Australians safer and reduce the amount of money irretrievably lost to scammers. We’re proud to address this complex issue with the help of the Federal Government which is providing the necessary guidance and regulatory amendment to support the development and use of this technical capability.

I have previously said that Australia and its people are now under cyber attack all the time. SMS scammers and other cyber criminals are not going to stop – and neither will we when it comes to keeping our customers safe and our networks secure.