Why Mobile Operator Deactivated Phone Numbers Matter

OpenMarket – January 19, 2016

I know this might be considered a boring topic by many of you, and I also cringed at picking it as a blog post topic since I didn’t include a picture within this blog post!  However, this is an important topic for every business owner who wants to run an SMS program in the US. It isn’t explained very often or very well, so it is worth the time to understand it better now.

The short answer to why mobile operator deactivated phone numbers matter is because your business wants to avoid accidentally spamming someone!  During the summer of 2015, the Telephone Communications Protection Act (TCPA) of 1991, which covers business texting to consumers in the US, sometimes refers to as A2P messaging or Application to Person messaging.  Note that this blog post isn’t a legal interpretation or advice or guidance in any way.  I merely want to explain a confusing topic and provide the solution for businesses who want to avoid the possibility of accidentally spamming someone. I’ll explain that new FCC clarification in a minute, but first, here are a few reminders and scenarios to show the trouble you can get into.

The TCPA requires businesses to get the consent (or opt-in) from consumers before sending them Mobile Terminated (MT) text messages.  However, mobile phone numbers can be deactivated by mobile operators and then recycled, which means they are given to a different subscriber.

What is the problem?

Suppose that I am a subscriber with phone number 123.456.7890 and I have opted in to receive text messages from a business. As such, the business has been sending me a recurring text message per the SMS program that I’ve opted into. Imagine that I decide to cancel my mobile phone subscription with my US carrier and I’m not porting my phone number to another carrier either. Porting a phone number simply means you are keeping your current mobile phone number when you change carriers. If you don’t port your phone number, then the US carrier will deactivate that mobile phone number for a period of time, then reactivate it and assign it to a new subscriber (i.e. recycle the phone number).

The problem arises if I’m lazy or forget to contact the business and tell them that my phone number changed, or that I want to opt out of the business’ SMS program.  Thus, the business still has my old phone number as an opted-in phone number to send MT messages to. If this SMS program were a daily messaging program, then when my US mobile operator put my phone number on their deactivated phone number list, and the business attempts to send a MT message to it, the business should have received an error code indicating that the phone number was deactivated. Therefore, the business should immediately remove it from their SMS program’s list (via their CRM or whatever system of record that holds their customers’ mobile phone numbers that have opted in to receive text messages from the business).

Okay that doesn’t sound too bad. A business sends a text message. OpenMarket attempts to deliver it to the US mobile operator. The operator returns an error message that works its way back to the business. Note that the business can get access to daily reports to see all of the mobile phone numbers whose MT messages weren’t delivered because the phone number is on a US mobile operator’s deactivation phone number report.

Well, let us consider another scenario. Imagine that the business’ SMS program only sends text messages very infrequently (e.g. only when there is suspected credit card fraud, or an annual appointment reminder, or for a product recall notice). Given that the business isn’t sending text messages to the consumer daily, the business won’t get the error message from sending the MT message. This is because the phone number was recycled by the mobile operator since the last time the business sent a message to their customer who is now the former owner (not the current owner) assigned to the mobile phone number. In this case, you just spammed the new owner of the phone number (assuming the business didn’t coincidentally get the opt-in on that same phone number from its new owner).

Why is this bad?

Back to the 2015 summer FCC TCPA ruling that I was referring to earlier. It is relevant because it clarified that text messages sent by a business to the reassigned (or recycled) wireless phone number violates the TCPA since the new owner of the mobile phone number didn’t provide the express consent that was the basis for which the MT message was sent. Businesses can be fined for violating the TCPA for sending SMS messages to the new owner of the recycled phone number if they have NOT received prior consent from the new owner of the phone number that was previously deactivated by the mobile operator.  Yes, there are court cases challenging this, but that isn’t my point.  My point is that most businesses really want to contact their customers rather than some random stranger who now owns the recycled phone number that was previously associated with the business’ actual customer!

What is the solution for OpenMarket customers?

Our customers are expected to do two things to mitigate this issue. First, every day customers need to download the US mobile operator deactivated phone number reports that OpenMarket makes available via our Customer Center portal or programmatically via an API. Virtually all of the US mobile operators provide a list of daily changes which are primarily the addition of newly deactivated phone numbers since their last report.  Secondly, businesses need to remove any of the mobile operators deactivated phone numbers from their list of phone numbers that they are using for their SMS program(s).

A third step (but not a requirement for dealing with this issue) would be that the business reach out to their customers via another communication channel that they have consent to use other than SMS to ask their customer for their new mobile phone number. They should also ask customers for their consent to opt them back into the program so the business can text them on the correct mobile phone number. The business could then replace the customer’s deactivated phone number with their new phone number.  Problem solved.

If you want more guidance on how to process US mobile operators deactivated phone numbers, feel free to email OpenMarket support or review our Deactivated Phone Numbers report documentation.  Lastly, it should be noted that the US carriers have taken notice of the FCC TCPA ruling and are starting to consider ways they could make it easier for businesses to avoid accidentally spamming new subscribers using recycled phone numbers. This is important since no standard exists regarding what information and how operators will provide it to be processed by businesses. OpenMarket is also working on some improvements in this area as well, so stayed tuned more news to come on this topic.

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