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Text scammers’ means might have a good end
By Doug Young

My first reaction to a report about Shanghai’s latest business scandal was one of disgust, as I read about scoundrels who use homemade radio devices to block mobile signals and send thousands of cellular spam messages.

Anyone who owns a cell phone is well aware of the spam problem, receiving dozens or even hundreds of such unwanted text messages each month offering everything from restaurant discounts to rip-off investment schemes.

But then I thought some more and realized these particular scoundrels might just have an important product, one that both businesses and consumers might welcome to stop noisy people from gabbing on their cell phones in public places. The case shows that some of the most innovative and useful products may start off with dubious origins, but could later find very useful functions in society.

I wrote several weeks ago about another scheme that I similarly admired for its creativity, even though it was technically illegal. That instance saw a restaurant owner secretly put poppy shells in his dishes to get customers mildly addicted to his food and keep them coming back. This latest scandal involves an equally entrepreneurial idea rooted in a legal gray zone.

The scam sweeping Shanghai involves homemade “mobile stations” that can be assembled by any entrepreneur with a little cash and some basic skills. All that’s required is a laptop computer and some other telecom equipment that’s easily available online. Such stations are also quite affordable, costing a relatively modest 20,000 yuan (US$3,225) each to assemble.

That relatively low price tag has attracted more than 40 entrepreneurs who are selling two kinds of services. The first allows someone to send spam messages to all cell phones within a particular distance. This particular “service” was the one that initially caught my attention, and is no doubt responsible for many of the spam messages that clog our phones each day.

These spam messages are becoming an increasing nuisance and are also a source of numerous scams. A quick look at my own cell phone reveals the extent of the problem, with the latest messages touting investment opportunities in south-facing apartments, luxury products, and in Australia, just to name a few.

Reading about these mega-spammers initially had me fuming at scoundrels who flood my phone with so many unwanted texts. But then I read about the second use of these “mobile stations,” namely their ability to block cellular signals. That was when I realized that perhaps these scoundrel entrepreneurs have a product that could actually serve a useful function.

Other Westerners and a growing number of Chinese who enjoy peace will know I’m referring to the annoying chatter by some people who love to talk on their phones at every possible opportunity, sometimes quite loudly.

There’s nothing worse than being at a restaurant or on a bus and having to listen to someone nearby engaged in a loud personal conversation, often involving frivolous matters like what they had for lunch or where they spent their weekend.

I’m sure that many high-end restaurants and shops would strongly consider hiring one of these mobile station operators to block all nearby phone signals from their stores, creating a quieter, more comfortable environment for customers.

I can recall one instance in which such a device was almost certainly in use, when I attended a meeting of the Shanghai People’s Congress while working as a reporter in 2005. In that case, it was impossible to get any mobile signal in the Shanghai Exhibition Center on Yan’an Road M. during the congress. As a result, the meeting hall was pleasantly quiet and everyone had to listen to what was being said by the speaker.

Of course I’m being just a little facetious in saying these rogue mobile station operators should be allowed into the business mainstream, as most are taking advantage of a legal loophole to earn money through ethically questionable behavior.

But I honestly do also feel this product could have a real and valuable place in the market, and I hope that someone can find an ethical way to commercialize it and bring some much needed quiet to many of Shanghai’s public venues.

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