Meet the Company Spam-Texting Against Barack Obama

ccAdvertising, a Virginia marketing and polling firm, circumvents laws about unsolicited texts by sending emails. Is that really legal?

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Reuters

Updated November 2

Even if you weren't among those to receive mysterious text messages attacking President Obama on Tuesday night, you might still have one headed your way. The spam texts seek to exploit a legal loophole and may pop up around the country as the campaign runs out its last week, even as they are decried as nefarious scheme that forces voters to pay for the negative messages they receive.

Tuesday's texts covered a range of topics. A few samples: "Obama denies protection to babies who survive abortions. Obama is just wrong"; "ObamaCare: a $700 BIL gamble where Medicare recipients take the risk. Stop Obama!"; "Obama wants to invest in Planned Parenthood instead of your future." Rather than appearing as standard texts, the messages came from email addresses like "sms@gopmessage.com." As of Tuesday night, the registrants for the domains were hidden, but by Wednesday morning they revealed the user: ccAdvertising, a firm in Centreville, Virginia. That was not, apparently, ccAdvertising's move: Whois states that the domains were "suspended for spam and abuse," a move which removed the proxy hiding their source.

CcAdvertising has worked for a wide range of clients, including the National Organization for Marriage, the Family Research Council, and Senator Roy Blount of Missouri -- as well as corporate giants such as Starbucks and Burger King, according to its website. And it's been at the center of controversies over the legality of its methods before, too. Requests for comment from the company were not immediately returned.

Here's how ccAdvertising's method probably works. It's illegal to send unsolicited automated text messages, so the company circumvents the rules by sending emails to phone numbers. Let's say that a company knows your cellphone number is 123-456-7890. It can't send you a text -- thanks to the ban on unsolicited text messages under the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Act of 1991 -- but it can send an email to that number, because every phone number is matched up with an e-address. Now, the emailers don't know who your provider is, so they'll need to send emails to, for example, 1234567890@txt.att.net -- and also the same number at five other common mobile company exchange addresses. One of the emails will be attached to the right company, and then appears in the owner's text message inbox. There, the recipient of the unsolicited spam message will charged for it, unless he or she has unlimited texting.

ccAdvertising has aroused controversy before, including for trying to get around robo-calling laws in states. In 2005, the state of North Dakota sued the company. In a 2011 race for Virginia legislature, anonymous 11th-hour texts attacked state Senator David Marsden, who was running against Republican Jason Flanary. The state Democratic Party questioned their legality; the state Republican Party said it had nothing to do with them, but they were traced to ccAdvertising. For his part, Flanary was vague about the messages, but his campaign paid the company $17,000. Marsden ultimately won the race.

A year later, the name on the registry for the sites that sent out messages on Tuesday is none other than Jason Flanary. Flanary is also running for state senate again, in Centreville; he identifies himself as "Chief Operating Officer of a small business in Fairfax County" on his campaign website. A message for Flanary was not immediately returned.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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