Cook County Record

Monday, December 16, 2019

Class action: Gather app improperly uses users' phones to send 'spam-vites' to friends, other contacts

By Scott Holland | Jun 1, 2017

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An Illinois man who said he received unsolicited text messages is accusing the developers of the Gather app of violating federal telecommunications law in designing a product which allegedly raids a user’s phone’s contacts list and sends more spam text messages inviting others to install the app.

Paul Ruppe filed a putative class action complaint May 18 in Cook County Circuit Court against GatherApp, Inc., based in San Francisco. The software is intended to allow people to invite friends to events and activities, but Ruppe said it also is responsible for spam texts sent to cellphone numbers without the recipients’ prior express consent.

Ruppe said Gather engages in an unlawful marketing technique known as “spam-viting” or “growth hacking,” in that it deceives users into granting access to contact information on their phones, then uses an automatic dialing system to send generic text messages to those contacts. The strategy is intended to increase the app’s popularity, inflating its valuation and attracting investors.

According to the complaint, more than 50,000 people have downloaded Gather for Apple and Android devices. The complaint included screenshots showing Gather asking the user’s permission to access contacts, but notes it does not notify users that granting access “will automatically transmit the telephone numbers to Gather’s automatic telephone dialing system and cause that system to transmit generic, spam text messages to user’s contacts.”

Ruppe said he got such messages on Jan. 5 and April 16, noting the ones on his phone came from telephone number 842-30, a short code Gather controls. Short codes are five- or six-digit numbers that can send and receive simple and multimedia messages — even 100 or more per second. Each text contains a link directing the recipient to the Gather website and then to the Apple App Store or Google Play Store, from where the app can be downloaded.

That the messages clearly come from Gather, and not a Gather app user, is problematic because Gather tells the users it should grant access to make it easier for them, the users, to connect with their friends and contacts, but instead it sends the messages from its own devices: “The user is never shown a sample of the text message before it is sent to his or her contacts and has no control over when the text messages are actually sent,” Ruppe alleges in his complaint.

Ruppe’s complaint includes several negative comments from various online sources, including professional reviews, such as an April 20 TechCrunch article, and customer complaints from sources like Reddit forums and app reviews. He said the “sizeable number” of online complaints “establishes that there are likely thousands of individuals who have received Gather’s unsolicited text messages.”

The sample image accompanying the TechCrunch article also was received Jan. 5, the day Ruppe first received a Gather text. The timestamps on the two messages are a minute apart, which Ruppe said establishes that Gather used an auto dialing system.

The class would include anyone who received an offending text up to four years before filing of the complaint. In addition to class certification and a jury trial, Ruppe seeks statutory damages of $500 for each violation and an injunction requiring Gather to stop sending the unauthorized texts.

Representing Ruppe, and seeking to serve as putative class counsel, are lawyers from The Bruno Firm, of Chicago.

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The Bruno Firm