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My wife is getting some weird text messages as replies in middle of conversations with her friends. The messages are blocks of Chinese characters. She gets these in the stock messaging app from friends that use Samsung phones and iPhones. She is using a Nexus 5X on AT&T. (N.B. Other users have asked the same question about the Samsung Galaxy S7, so it's not a phone-specific issue.)

Here is a screencap from today from an iPhone user, and translating the text does not make sense (though I did image translation): :

iphone response what does this even mean

(Click to see the image in full size)


Here is one from a Samsung phone and from their end:

again with the chinese from the samsung's end

(Click to see the image in full size)

Does anyone know why this is happening? Is it some weird thing when someone with a weird texting app replies with some emoji/GIF/image?

  • 1
    Does she have AT&T messages enabled? Also, are the messages gibberish in the default messaging app? What it looks like is that her phone is receiving multimedia messages that her phone can't decode. I'm wondering if a carrier app is interfering with message receipt. – NobleUplift Oct 12 '16 at 20:00
  • Messenger is the default app. There is a text plan attached to her account. It does seem that a block of text might be coded by the sender and the carrier tries to decipher it thinking that Chinese is the default language. – Zlatty Oct 12 '16 at 20:14
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    Actually, it's not only Chinese/Hanzi characters, there are also few Korean/Hangul characters too... which made me think of mojibake. However, I can't think of any reason, given the original message doesn't seem to have non-standard characters. – Andrew T. Oct 13 '16 at 15:23
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    A quick research gave this: Long text messages sending as random characters, also text in Chinese writing. Was it an SMS message? I'm a bit doubtful with emoji support on SMS... – Andrew T. Oct 13 '16 at 15:29
  • Thanks @AndrewT. This seems like the most logical answer. It's surprising that this issue is still there with modern phones. – Zlatty Oct 13 '16 at 15:50
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Cause

It's likely caused by either/both character encoding incompatibility and/or wrong character encoding, resulting in mojibake (garbled text):

  1. Character encoding incompatibility
    SMS, or text message, in general supports either text-only (e.g. GSM 03.38), or Unicode (e.g. UTF-8, UTF-16, UCS-2). Emoji, a character that resembles an image (not to be confused with emoticon, "a pictorial representation of a facial expression using punctuation marks, numbers and letters"), is supported in Unicode (UTF-16), but not in GSM 03.38.

  2. Wrong character encoding issue
    For some reasons, the original character encoding is wrongly interpreted somewhere (e.g. by app, or by text provider), resulting in different character encoding. While in some cases it doesn't affect the text, other cases may result in totally garbled text (refer to Microsoft Windows "Bush hid the facts" bug).

In this case, it's likely that one of the encoding that is used in SMS, GSM. 03.38, which uses 7-bit per character, is interpreted as UTF-16, which uses 16-bit per character due to emoji.

Solution

  • Recipients
    Try changing the messaging app. If it doesn't fix the issue, then it's probably caused by the text provider itself. However, you can still try to recover the text (e.g. using online service such as http://string-functions.com/encodedecode.aspx): set encoding to UTF-16 and decoding to UTF-8.

  • Senders
    Avoid emoji at all, or make the messaging apps send it as text-only (e.g. in Google Messenger, there's Simple characters only in Advanced settings to convert special characters in SMS messages when sending it)


Further reading:

  • 1
    In apples iPhone forums I have gotten some examples of such texts. It turns out that some process is adding @ between each letter and the result is read as UTF-16LE. The word yes becomes y@e@s@ and is displayed as 䁙䁥䁳. It seems to have started recently and one wonders if it is connected to an iOS update somehow. – Tom Gewecke Oct 19 '16 at 17:57
  • @TomGewecke, that's exactly what the texts look like once converted. We've tried different messanging apps, and this issue still persists. At least Andrew T's conversion method works. – Zlatty Oct 24 '16 at 4:46
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    In Apple's iPhone forum, one user has posted a possible fix, but I do not know if it has been verified further: "The Apple senior adviser recommended contacting Att again and have them reset my Sms relay which took 5 min. After convincing them to just do it. Anyway, it worked!" Also someone put up a site to decode the stuff: signsoftheword.com – Tom Gewecke Oct 24 '16 at 18:43

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