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SMS Account Verification

singpolyma@singpolyma.net

Some apps and services (but not JMP!) require an SMS verification code in order to create a new account.  (Note that this is different from using SMS for authentication; which is a bad idea since SMS can be easily intercepted, are not encrypted in transit, and are vulnerable to simple swap scams, etc.; but has different incentives and issues.)  Why do they do this, and how can it affect you as a user?

Tarpit

In the fight against service abuse and SPAM, there are no sure-fire one-size-fits-all solutions.  Often preventing abusive accounts and spammers entirely is not possible, so targets turn to other strategies, such as tarpits.  This is anything that slows down the abusive activity, thus resulting in less of it.  This is the best way to think about most account-creation verification measures.  Receiving an SMS to a unique phone number is something that is not hard for most customers creating an account.  Even a customer who does not wish to give out their phone number or does not have a phone number can (in many countries, with enough money) get a new cell phone and cell phone number fairly quickly and use that to create the account.

If a customer is expected to be able to pass this check easily, and an abuser is indistiguishable from a customer, then how can any SMS verification possibly help prevent abuse?  Well, if the abuser needs to create only one account, it cannot.  However, in many cases an abuser is trying to create tens of thousands of accounts.  Now imagine trying to buy ten thousand new cell phones at your local store every day.  It is not going to be easy.

“VoIP Numbers”

Now, JMP can easily get ten thousand new SMS-enabled numbers in a day.  So can almost any other carrier or reseller.  If there is no physical device that needs to be handed over (such as with VoIP, eSIM, and similar services), the natural tarpit is gone and all that is left is the prices and policies of the provider.  JMP has many times received requests to help with getting “10,000 numbers, only need them for one day”.  Of course, we do not serve such customers.  JMP is not here to facilitate abuse, but to help create a gateway to the phone network for human beings whose contacts are still only found there.  That doesn’t mean there are no resellers who will work with such a customer, however.

So now the targets are in a pickle if they want to keep using this strategy.  If the abuser can get ten thousand SMS-enabled numbers a day, and if it doesn’t cost too much, then it won’t work as a tarpit at all!  So many of them have chosen a sort of scorched-earth policy.  They buy and create heuristics to guess if a phone number was “too easy” to get, blocking entire resellers, entire carriers, entire countries.  These rules change daily, are different for every target, and can be quite unpredictable.  This may help when it comes to foiling the abusers, but is bad if you are a customer who just wants to create an account.  Some targets, especially “big” ones, have made the decision to lose some customers (or make their lives much more difficult) in order to slow the abusers down.

De-anonymization

Many apps and services also make money by selling your viewing time to advertisers (e.g. ads interspersed in a social media feed, as pre-/mid-roll in a video, etc.) based on your demographics and behaviour.  To do this, they need to know who you are and what your habits are so they can target the ads you see for the advertisers’ benefit.  As a result, they have an incentive to associate your activity with just one identity, and to make it difficult for you to separate your behaviour in ways that reduce their ability to get a complete picture of who you are.  Some companies might choose to use SMS verification as one of the ways they try to ensure a given person can’t get more than one account, or for associating the account (via the provided phone number) with information they can acquire from other sources, such as where you are at any given time.

Can I make a new account with JMP numbers?

The honest answer is, we cannot say.  While JMP would never work with abusers, and has pricing and incentives set up to cater to long-term users rather than those looking for something “disposable”, communicating that to every app and service out there is a big job.  Many of our customers try to help us with this job by contacting the services they are also customers of; after all, a company is more likely to listen to their own customers than a cold-call from some other company.  The Soprani.ca project has a wiki page where users keep track of what has worked for them, and what hasn’t, so everyone can remain informed of the current state (since a service may work today, but not tomorrow, then work again next week, it is important to track success over time).

Part of why we can’t say whether you can make a new account with JMP numbers is because the reasons some companies choose to use SMS verification are opaque, so we may not know all of their criteria for sure.

Many customers use JMP as their only phone number, often ported in from their previous carrier and already associated with many online accounts.  This often works very well, but everyone’s needs are different.  Especially those creating new personas which start with a JMP number find that creating new accounts at some services for the persona can be frustrating to impossible.  It is an active area of work for us and all other small, easy-access phone network resellers.

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