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Text message scams: How to identify a fake text message

Learn how to identify fake text messages and protect yourself from text message scams before it's too late.

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We’d all like to believe we know a scam when we see one. 

You probably think, “that could never happen to me…” but a study by Proofpoint shows that over 74 percent of U.S. organizations experienced a successful phishing attack in 2021. 

In addition to phony phone calls and email phishing scams, text scams have also become more common. This type of fraud is also known as “smishing.” 

SMS phishing (aka smishing) is the fraudulent solicitation of your personal or financial information through the use of text messaging.

Smishing, though uncommon, can be extra effective due to the personal nature of our text inbox. 

Here’s how you can protect yourself from smishing scams and spot them before it’s too late.

💡SimpleTexting tip: To help you out, we have a team dedicated to compliance who monitor messages sent through ST for suspicious activity. This ensures that our platform is only used for good.

5 tips to identify fake text messages or text scams

While each text scam looks a little different, there are some common hallmarks you can look out for to spot a fraud.

We checked out pages from the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission to bring you the best information on avoiding text scams.

1. Unusually long numbers

Legitimate SMS marketing messages are usually sent from a 6-digit short code (like 711711), a 10-digit toll-free phone number (ex: 844-462-2554), or a local text-enabled business phone

If you receive a text message from an unidentified 11-digit number, the odds are high that it’s a scam.

So, even if they identify themselves as your bank, realtor, insurance agent, etc., look at the number the message was sent from for verification. 

Plus–your bank won’t contact you from their personal cell for your bank account, card numbers, or other sensitive information.

2. Random family emergency texts

The family emergency scam text message is one of the most common, according to the FCC. 

In this instance, you’ll receive a text message saying something like this:

“Your family member who lives in __ (or is traveling in __) has run into some trouble. They’re in need of financial help and a money transfer is the only way to help them.” 

They may even say that contacting this family member will cause them danger.

These texts can be very frightening, which is why they work. However, before you take any action or send money, take a pause. 

Try to verify the person’s identity by asking questions a stranger couldn’t know the answers to. Reach out to a trusted family member or friend to confirm the scammer’s story (even if they say to keep it a secret).

Always feel free to call 1-877-FTC-HELP for advice.

Your grandson is being held in jail. He needs bail money right away.

3. Refund scams

Another common smishing scam comes not in the form of asking for money, but in claiming money is owed to you. 

A fake refund often comes from a “government” agency or monthly billing program (like your cell phone provider) letting you know you were “overcharged.”

They will often ask you for direct deposit information so a charge can be reversed. 

In this case, once they secure your routing number, they can access your account and steal from you.

AT&T: Your postpaid account has been charged USD500 for LTE use. Is this a wrong charge? Text 500 send to 2936XXXXXXX for REFUND

4. Reactivation scam

These scams tend to look innocent on the surface. They generally say something like:

“Your [email, text, app] password has been [compromised, used with another device, hacked]. Your account has been deactivated for your protection. Text XXXXX to reactivate your account.” 

In the case of these messages, simply delete the messages (and report them). Do NOT reply or send your username or password. Just check the accounts in question. 

When you see that they haven’t been deactivated, you’ll have your answer.

User #25388: Your Gmail profile has been compromised. We have deactivated it for your protection. Text back SENDNOW in order to reactivate your account.

5. “You’ve won a prize!”

This is another common scam–and it’s also the simplest. 

Targets receive a text informing them that they’ve won a prize, giveaway, sweepstakes, etc. 

Through either a hyperlink or reply, they’re instructed to reach out to claim the reward. However, this is yet another ploy to receive your personal information.

In this case, if you did not enter to win anything, ignore the message. 

If you’re not sure if you did (let’s face it, we all enter contests every now and then), reach out to the brand on their verified website or social media pages to double-check.

What to do if you fall victim to a text scam

If you’re the victim of a text scam, know that you’re not alone – over 47 billion spam texts were reported in 2021.

The good news is, the worst-case scenario isn’t terribly common. You just need to recognize your mistake and act as quickly as you can.

  • Cancel credit cards used for transactions and report the fraud.
  • Inform your cell phone carrier of the fraudulent number and incident.
  • Block the number from your phone.
  • Change your passwords on important/sensitive apps such as online banking, social media, or any other space with personal information stored.

If you do fall victim to a text scam, you may experience a few possible outcomes:

  • Malware: responding to a text can potentially allow malware to get installed on your device, which can gather personal information.
  • Unwanted charges: because message and data rates may apply to any text exchange, you may notice unwanted charges on your next cell phone bill due to your interaction with the scammers.
  • Slow cell speeds: junk or spam installed on your phone from hackers may cause your phone’s sending and browsing speeds to slow down.

Should you reply to text message scams?

Many of us have seen the screenshots on social media of humorous interactions between scammer and victim.

We recommend avoiding any interactions at all costs. 

If your scammer knows they’ve successfully reached somebody, they’ll only make their text scams even harder to pick up on next time.

Instead, here’s how to successfully ‘can the spam’ when you receive a suspicious message. 

How to stop text scams or “smishing” messages

Of course, you should avoid replying at all costs, but you should also: 

  • Slow down: Acting too quickly when you receive these messages is a mistake. The scammers want you to feel confused and rushed. Slow down and don’t fall into the trap of providing an immediate response.
  • Don’t click: Never ever (ever) click on a link in a message if you suspect it’s spam.
  • Delete the message: Don’t risk accidentally replying to or saving the content on your mobile device. If you are reporting the message, feel free to take a screenshot for posterity, then delete the text.
  • Report the spam: You can report any suspected spam text messages directly to your carrier or to the FTC through their complaint assistant.

The good news is, text message scams are far less common than other digital tactics.

Delivery statistics for spam messages and scam text messages
Photo Credit:

Text message scam FAQs

We’ve covered the broad strokes of identifying and avoiding text scams, but now we’ll dig into some of the most common (and crucial) questions we hear about smishing.

Can you get scammed by opening a text message?

Technically, no, which is why most of these scam texts ask you to complete an action–like clicking a link, replying, or calling a number. 

As long as you don’t complete that action, simply opening the text won’t do much harm.

Can you get hacked by replying to a text?

In some cases, yes. Replying to a smishing message can allow malware into your phone or land you some unwanted charges. 

How can you find out who sent you a text message?

Obviously, you know when you’ve gotten a text from trusted friends or family (because they show up as a contact). 

If you’re getting spam from an unknown number, you may be able to Google that number and find it listed on websites that report text scam numbers.

Your best course of action, though, is still to report and block the number and delete the text.

Stay alert to smishing and text scams

Always remember that knowledge is your best defense against scams. 

For a comprehensive list of the most popular scams and frauds in the United States, check out this government developed guide.

If you’re interested in what is legal to text, feel free to explore our SMS compliance guide, which explains the far more common, legal world of text marketing.

Meghan Tocci
Meghan Tocci

Meghan Tocci is a content strategist at SimpleTexting. When she’s not writing about SaaS, she’s trying to teach her puppy Lou how to code. So far, not so good.

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