By Dan Moren
March 2, 2021 6:48 AM PT
Wish List: Better anti-spam tools for Messages
In the war against spam, it often feels like we’re waging an uphill battle. While our email tools have improved and evolved over the last few years, the battlefield has started to shift from our inbox to our phones.
Recently, I’ve ended up on the receiving end of spammy text chains. Usually these are links, texted from a local number, to roughly 20 different phone numbers, many of them within the same area code as my own (or adjacent ones).
In and of itself, this isn’t much of a surprise: as long as we have electronic communications, we’re probably going to have spam. But what is disappointing is the very paltry state of tools at my disposal for dealing with these issues. In essence, I’m limited to a couple of tools, neither of which produces particularly satisfactory results.
Apple has allowed you, for some time, to block the sender of a text message by On the face of it, this seems like the perfect option: get a spam text, add that number to your block list.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For one thing, this is a tactical solution that doesn’t stop you from getting spam—in many cases, spammers send only a single message from a number before moving on to another phone number, meaning you’re essentially playing whack-a-mole.1
Moreover, whether intentionally or inadvertently, the strategy of spamming a bunch of different numbers for one text essentially makes blocking useless. Invariably when somebody replies to that spam text, it still gets through the block list, because the message isn’t coming from the original source that you blocked.2 Which means in order to be effective you have to block everyone on the thread.
Which isn’t a great place to be, because the interface for blocking is less than convenient. On an iOS device, you first have to tap the header, then tap the info button, then find the sender you want to block (which may require tapping a Show More button on one of these threads), then tap that sender, then finally select Block this Caller. Now imagine doing that 20 times. Frankly, I have better things to do with my day.
As cumbersome as the process is on iOS, it still beats the pants off the Mac, where you can only add to the block list by going to Message > Preferences, clicking on the iMessage tab, then the Blocked tab, and finally tapping the Plus (+) button and then realizing that you can only block someone if you have them in your contacts. Utterly bananas and unacceptable.
So, if you can’t block these threads entirely, can you just arrange not to be disturbed by them? More recently, Messages on both iOS and macOS has allowed you to mute notifications for a text message thread.
This can, at least, stop you from being peppered with notifications for responses to that thread…but it seems to only be effective with texts sent via iMessage, not conventional text messages.
Even in that “best case” scenario, you have to leave the thread sitting there in Messages, it still doesn’t stop spam coming from a new source, and it’s just irritating. (So far I haven’t yet run into any issues with people spamming large files like photos or videos, but I worry that’s not far off, at which point, it’s also potentially eating up storage space.)
Nuke it from orbit
You can also delete a thread in iOS or Messages…but this is even less effective than muting, since the next time somebody responds to a thread, it just pops up again. It also doesn’t work in conjunction with the muting option—you can’t mute a thread that doesn’t exist, and if you mute a thread and then delete it, it just comes up again the next time you receive a text on the thread.
Additionally, the vagaries of iCloud mean that even though deleting a thread on one device is supposed delete it on all devices—assuming you’re using Messages in the Cloud—I have never ever seen this actually work. Instead, I end up deleting the thread on my MacBook Air only to pick up my iPhone and see the thread is still there. Rinse and repeat with my iPad, iMac, and even my Apple Watch.
A better class of tools
Clearly, a better solution is needed. The thing is, spam is hardly a new problem—we’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with it in email, so why not leverage those tools and everything we’ve learned over the last few decades for text messages as well?
Apple already provides the option to separate your message threads into those from known and unknown contacts; it could take that a step further and apply some machine learning or allow filters to texts from unknown contacts to flag ones that are likely spam.
That’s not to say it’s not a challenging problem: we all get texts from food delivery services, or containing our one-time passcodes, or political fundraisers, that might look like spam but are at least legit (if still sometimes annoying). But those false positives aren’t a reason not to take action. Again, the example of email could help pave the way here by essentially adding a “Possible Spam” filter to Messages, where you could review texts marked as spam.
As frustrating as this is for someone like me, I worry even more about the people who aren’t as tech savvy and find themselves inundated with all these junky messages—not to mention the cases in which they might end up tapping or clicking on a nefarious link.
Apple needs to realize this is a problem that’s only likely to get worse: it should provide an easy way for everybody to combat these annoying and perfidious messages and, ideally, it should be as easy and effective as marking something as a spam email. That system may not be perfect, but it’s way better than what we have now.
- And, even if they’re not using iMessage, they can still send texts from one mail address, which means they can freely create an essentially infinite amount of places to send messages from. ↩
- I know what you’re thinking: why would anyone reply to a spam thread? To which I say you’ve clearly never been on a mass email accidentally cc’d to hundreds of people. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]
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