A wet Wednesday in Hartlepool

An article in the Guardian Organ Grinder blog, titled “Local newspaper industry needs radical action now if it is to survive” laments the incipient passing of much of the country’s local newspaper industry. I don’t disagree with the article’s analysis of the issues, but it ends with a question that I think deserves an answer:

Bloggers will have their part to play, but the fundamental question remains: who will cover Hartlepool magistrates court on a wet Wednesday afternoon? It will not be a well-meaning amateur and has to be a professional journalist – the issue is how will it be paid for?

Hartlepool Magistrates Court
Hartlepool Magistrates Court

I think there’s a flawed assumption in the question. Namely, the belief that Hartlepool magistrates court needs to be covered on a wet Wednesday afternoon, because otherwise nobody will know what happened and what verdicts were handed down.

In the past, that would have been the case, simply because there was no easy way of disseminating that information other than via the press. But it isn’t the case any more. Now, court decisions don’t need to be restricted to dusty tomes in a legal library, they can be published on the Internet and made available for everyone to see. For example, here’s a case from Hartlepool magistrates court. That’s on the web here because it happens to concern a celebrity, but the basic information exists for every case.

There is no technical reason why every court in the land should not, as a matter of routine, publish all its decisions on the web. At the top, the Supreme Court already does. Most other higher courts, including the High Court of England and Wales, make their judgments available to the third-party website operated by the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII). But it’s still a piecemeal approach, and it doesn’t extend to lower courts such as the crown courts, county courts and magistrates courts – the places where the vast majority of cases are heard.

In the past, this didn’t matter so much, because the majority of courts are attended by the media and anything interesting does get reported. But we can’t rely on that in the future, as the Guardian article makes clear. That’s why it’s all the more important now to start taking steps towards a consistent and universal system of judgment publication.

I’ve blogged in the past about how the court system seems to go out of its way to avoid open publication of things like court listings. I still think it’s bordering on the scandalous that the court service has no in-house publication department which can maintain a web-based database. Give that the department already has a website which could carry the data, I don’t believe that the marginal cost of doing so would significantly exceed the amount paid by the Ministry of Justice to BAILII to publish judgments on the MoJ’s behalf. But the benefits to the public interest would be immense. Apart from nothing else, it would mean we’d no longer need to rely on journalists to tell us how much a pop star was fined by a magistrate for speeding on the M6. Instead, they could do more useful things, like attend local council meetings….

O2 comprehension failure

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been getting a lot of SMS spam from one particular number. You can read that article for some background, but it turns out to be possibly more weird than that. According to Mark Lewis, the MD of Marketing Craze, the company which runs the lotto service advertised in the texts, they’ve never sent actually any messages to my number. They’ve received my “STOP” message that I sent in reply to them, but they have no log of ever sending to my number. And, it seems, neither does their SMS operator.

Now, that may be a load of tosh, but I’m inclined to believe it. After all, if they have been sending the messages to me, then they’re seriously in breach of the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations and are in line for enforcement action from the ICO anyway – so lying about it is only going to make things worse.

What Mark Lewis asked me to do is to ask my own network operator for the sender number on the texts that I’ve received. Now, that isn’t the shortcode number (87770), which is merely the display number – it’s the underlying sender number, which isn’t visible to me. So I used O2’s online support form to ask them.

Unfortunately, one of the downsides of support forms is that I don’t have a record of my original query. But, trust me, I did ask them to tell me the real originator (not the shortcode) of a particular set of messages. I gave them precise times, just in case they needed to look it up in the logs.

Here’s their first reply:

Hi Mark

I’m sorry for any trouble that you might have faced.

You’re receiving interactive services through the short codes 87770.
This service is offered by a third party. This service offers:

– Ring tones
– Jokes
– Games
– Tarot
– Chat
– Mobile internet services (WAP) and more.

To cancel it, you’ll need to send STOP as a text message to 87770 from
where you are getting these messages. I’ve listed below the details from
where you are getting these messages.

It may take 5 working days for the service to be cancelled.

shortcode: 87770
company name: Marketing Craze
contact number: 08708 032 340

I hope the above info helps.

Regards

Leena Kaur
SMB Customer Service

Now, that clearly doesn’t answer the question. So, I tried again. Response number 2:

Hello Mark

I’m sorry for any inconvenience that may have been caused with this
matter.

As informed in our previous email, I confirm that the details of the
shortcode 87770 are:

company name: Marketing Craze
contact number: 08708 032 340.

I’m afraid it isn’t possible for us to provide the originating SMS
service centre number.

To stop receiving these messages, I’d suggest you to send STOP ALL to
87770 from your mobile. It may take 24 hours for this service to be
cancelled.

I once again apologise for any inconvenience that may have been caused
with this matter.

Kind Regards

Chaitanya
SMB Customer Service

Clearly, if the sender shortcode is being spoofed (and that is extremely easy; it’s even perfectly normal in some cases – I’ve worked on a project where we legitimately did so ourselves), then that’s no help at all. I already know that the messages appear to be coming from 87770, what I want to know is who they’re really coming from.

I have tried contacting O2 again, but in the meantime I thought I’d try another tack. When looking up the contact details of their complaints department, I noticed that they have a “live chat” option. Now, I’m not so optimistic that I thought I’d actually get an answer from the chat operator (since, anyway, they almost certainly don’t have access to the logs to be able to find it), but I did think that maybe someone there could point me in the right direction.

Fat chance. Here’s a screenshot of the chat log:

And, for those of you who find it easier, here’s a transcript:

Welcome to O2. Someone will be with you soon.
You’re through to Nieve.

Nieve: Hi I’m Nieve. How can I help?
Mark Goodge: Hi, I need to find out the originating SMS service centre number on a text that I received. How do I do that?
Nieve: Sure.
Nieve: I’ll be happy to help you.
Mark Goodge: so what do I need to do to get that information?
Nieve: I’m just giving you the Message center number.
Nieve: Please give me a moment.
Nieve: Thanks for waiting.
Nieve: The Message center number is +447802000332.
Nieve: I’m sorry for the long hold.
Mark Goodge: that’s the outbound number that I use when sending an SMS. I need to know the SMSC on an inbound SMS that I received.
Mark Goodge: that is, I need to know where the SMS came from
Nieve: There’s no any such Message center number from O2.
Mark Goodge: Yes, there is. Your logs will show it. Do myou have access to the SMS logs?
Nieve: Please be rest assured if your Message center number is correct +447802000332 then you can send and receive text easily.
Mark Goodge: no, you’re not understanding what I’m asking.
Mark Goodge: I don’t need to know *my* SMSC number
Mark Goodge: I need to know someone else’s SMSC number, the number used by someone who sent me a text
Nieve: We can’t confirm the some one else SMSC number but if you’re getting the text from O2 number then also the number would be same.
Mark Goodge: It isn’t coming from an O2 number. Why aren’t ypou allowed to tell me the incomining SMSC number?
Sorry, your chat’s ended – but we can’t tell why. Please try again if you need more help

(If you want to know how I know that +447802000332 is my own SMSC number, I found that via these helpful instructions)

Obviously, at this point I could just get back to Mark Lewis and say “Sorry, O2 are being numpties, I can’t help you any more”. And maybe I will. It is, after all, ultimately their problem, not mine – I’m not the one who has to prove to the ICO that they didn’t send the texts. But I still feel frustrated that I can’t find anyone yet at O2 who gives even the impression of understanding the question I’m asking, let alone being able to answer it. I have been assured by people who work for other mobile providers that this information is available, and should be provided to me on request. And, while Marketing Craze may well be a legitimate operator, O2’s response would be completely and utterly unhelpful and inappropriate if the messages were coming from a sender that was knowingly breaking the law and using SMS sender spoofing to obscure their identity.

So, while it may well be an uncommon request, it isn’t one that O2’s customer support staff should be unable to understand. Even if first line support need to escalate it in order to get an answer, they should still be capable of simply reading and comprehending my question. Or is that really too much to ask?

Bad municipal web design

One of the things about coming to parenthood relatively late is that I’m also late to experience something that all my contemporaries are already only too aware of: Schools are absolutely terrible when it comes to handling payments made by parents for the various non-free things that their children participate in, such a school trips, school dinners, after-school clubs, etc. Most schools, it seems, still have no alternative to cash or cheque handed over to the teacher by the pupil. In an age of credit cards, debit cards, PayPal, online banking, telephone banking, Google Checkout, etc a reliance on cash and cheques is not so much a throwback to the 20th century as positively Dickensian. And yet that’s still the case in the majority of our educational system.

I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised to discover that my daughter’s school does actually have an online payment facility, provided by Worcestershire County Council. At least, I was pleasantly surprised, until I tried to use it.

The URL to the payment facility, along with my daughter’s PIN (that’s “Pupil Identification Number”, in this context) and a list of instructions on how to use the system was provided on a couple of photocopied sheets of paper. Disregarding the fact that a well-written online payment system shouldn’t really need printed instructions, the basic idea of a PIN plus payment details seems reasonable. So, on to the site itself. According to the letter, I can find it at http://www.worcestershire.gov.uk/payments4schools – so off we go.

First impressions are that it’s a bit basic. Apart from the Favicon, there’s no Worcestershire branding at all – just the name of, presumably, the operator, Civica, and a rather strange phrase in the logo: “Authority Icon”. OK, it’s a functional site and there’s no real need to jazz it up too much, but a little more attention to visual design wouldn’t go amiss.

So, to make a payment. The instruction sheet tells me to select the child’s school from the drop-down menu, which also happens to be pretty obvious. So I do. The next step, according to the instructions, is to select the item I want to pay for from the next drop-down. But hey – it doesn’t work. There are no options in the second drop-down at all. None. Nada. Zilch. It doesn’t matter what school I select, nothing appears there.

OK, let’s skip that. I enter my daughter’s PIN and name, and then the amount I want to pay. In this case, I want to pay for her next three weeks of dinner money, at £2 per day. So that’s £30 in total. I enter “30” into the box.

Next, there’s a checkbox for Gift Aid. I have no idea why that’s there. I know what Gift Aid is for, and how it works, but I don’t see how it relates to a dinner money payment. Ah, the instruction sheet tells me that I should tick this if the school has asked me to. Well, fair enough, but it wouldn’t hurt to put that on the website as well.

Then there’s a drop-down menu for my address. Except that I don’t have any options there, either. So I enter the details manually.

Finally, there are three buttons at the bottom: “Add to List”, “Cancel” and “Back to Top”. It doesn’t say so, but I assume that the first is what I need to press. Oh yes, it mentions that on the printed instructions as well. So why not make it more intuitive to begin with?

I click it. And get two error messages.

The first error tells me that I haven’t selected anything from the second drop-down, so I haven’t said what the payment is for. Well, no, but that’s because I couldn’t. But, mysteriously, I do now have a set of options. OK, I’ll select it now. But… I can’t. There isn’t an option for dinner money. Why not? The letter from the school implies, but doesn’t explicitly state, that I can pay dinner money that way.

The second error tells me that “30” isn’t a valid amount. Apparently, I have to enter it as “30.00”. Although that’s moot, now, as I can’t make the payment I want to make. It would have been nice to know that before I started.

Ah, a bit of experimentation shows that I can get the list of payment options either by clicking on the “select” button next to the school list, or clicking on what looks like a menu choice on the left, the words “School Account”. That’s not exactly intuitive, and it shouldn’t be necessary – simply selecting the school should fire off the onSelect() trigger which populates the next drop-down list. This is just lazy, or incompetent, programming.

Anyway, I do have another payment to make – a pantomime visit – so I select that. Fill in the correct amount, add to list, and there it is at the bottom of the page. So, what next?

The “Pay” button is the obvious choice here, and, fortunately, it works. The rest of the payment process isn’t too bad, although it’s still poorly laid out visually. And when I got to the “3D Secure” page, it timed out. I’m no great lover of 3DS anyway, but it can work OK when cleverly integrated. Here, it isn’t. However, I manage to persuade it to load, and complete the payment. I wonder how many people would have given up at this point, though.

OK, so it does work, eventually. And it’s easier to use once I’d worked out how to use it. But, as an example of web design, both visual and functional, it’s very poor. As a web author, I’d be embarrassed to inflict that on paying customers. But, presumably, Worcestershire County Council paid someone to create that system. I’d be interested to know how much they spent. Because if it was any more than a fiver, they’ve been ripped off.

Update:

Having done a little more investigation into this software, and swapped notes with other people who have had similar bad experiences with it, I’ve also discovered that it has a horrendous security weakness. If you know how to do it (and no, I’m not going to give instructions here), it’s possible to obtain the names and addresses of other people using the same system to make their payments. Fortunately, it doesn’t leak credit card numbers, but even a name and address is bad enough. Consider how valuable that information might be to potential (or actual) stalkers, or aggressive ex-partners, etc.

For that reason, I refuse to use the software. And I have told my daughter’s school why I refuse to use it. I’ve gone back to the old-fashioned method of sending a cheque or cash. I would strongly recommend that everyone else avoids using it as well, if at all possible.

Lottobytext: SMS spammers

I’ve been getting a fair number of SMS spams recently trying to persuade me to sign up for a lottery number scam. They come from shortcode 87770, and look like this:

FreeMsg: get 5 FREE lines in the nxt Euromillions £41M Jckpt Txt TRY to 87770 Lines will be txt 2 ur mobile LottobyText 0208708109768

Despite texting back ‘STOP’ to the number, they keep on coming. I’ve also tried using their online form and the email address supplied on the LottobyText website, but that hasn’t helped either.

So I did a little Googling, and found that they’re coming from a company by the name of Marketing Craze Ltd. That reveals the names of the directors, so I thought I’d try getting in touch directly. Here’s what I just sent:

To: [email protected]
Subject: Unsolicited SMS from LottobyText

Hi Mark,

One of your companies, LottobyText, keeps on sending me unsolicited text
messages. I’m sure you’re aware that that’s illegal. Please can you make
sure that in future, you only send marketing texts to people who have
explicitly signed up for your services.

Every time I get a message from one of your companies, I’ll send you
another email to remind you as well as reporting it to the ICO.

Regards

Mark Goodge

I’ll post any updates here if/when Mr Lewis ever replies to me. If he doesn’t reply, I’ll try emailing his fellow directors instead.

Incidentally, Marketing Craze have form as email spammers as well. Here’s an interesting link at a web forum.