How To Identify a Text Scam

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Internet scams have existed for decades. Learn how to protect your mobile device and spot the signs of a text scam before it's too late.

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 McAfee shows that over 97% of consumers were unable to correctly identify phishing scams when presented with them.

As digital communication has evolved so has the sophistication of hackers and scammers. In addition to phony phone calls and email phishing scams, text scams have become more common with the proliferation of smartphones and the emergence of text messages as a part of everyday communication. This type of fraud is also known as “smishing.” 

SMS phishing (aka smishing) is the fraudulent solicitation of your personal information through the use of text messaging. Although far less common than other kinds of digital dupes, smishing can be effective due to the personal nature of our inbox. After all, texts are reserved for close friends, family, and businesses who we have consented to connect with.

So, how can you protect yourself from smishing scams and spot them before it’s too late? We have the low down on all the warning signs as well as what to do if you encounter one.

💡SimpleTexting Tip: To help you out, we have a team dedicated to compliance who monitor messages sent through ST for suspicious activity to ensure our platform is only used for good!

5 Tips To Identify a Text Scam or “Smishing”

While each text scam looks a little different, there are some common hallmarks of these messages you can look out for that serve as dead giveaways for fraud.

1. Unusually Long Numbers

Legitimate marketing text messages are often sent from a 6-digit short code (like 555888), a text-enabled, 10-digit toll-free number (ex: 844-462-2554) or a business’s existing ten-digit landline. If you were to 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. you should look to the number the message was sent from for verification. The potential of this happening is low, but it is still something to be wary of!

2. Random Family Emergency Texts

The family emergency scam is one of the most common tricks according to the FCC. In this instance, you’ll receive a text message saying something along the lines of “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.” In some instances, they can 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. Attempt 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 verify the scammer’s story (even if they say to keep it a secret). And always feel free to call 1-877-FTC-HELP for advice.

Today 11:34 AM
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”. Oftentimes they will direct you to share 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.

Today 9:55 AM
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 along the lines of “your [email, text, app] password has been [comprised, 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 passwords. Simply check the accounts in question. When you see they haven’t been deactivated you’ll have your answer.

Today 3:00 PM
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!”

Another one of the most common text scams is also the simplest. Recipients receive a text informing them that they’ve won a prize, giveaway, or something of that nature. 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 hoping for something every now and then) reach out to the brand on their verified website or social media pages to double check.

What Happens if I Fall for a Text Scam?

If you “fall” for a text scam, know that you’re not alone. Last year 47,567 different scams were added to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) Scam Tracker, with numerous victims for each new plot.

The good news is, the worst-case scenario is not always the most common. Just because you’ve sent money to a scammer doesn’t mean that tomorrow you’ll be homeless and penniless. The important thing is to realize 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, any other space with personal information stored.

Once you’ve taken these precautions, the FTC warns of a few possible outcomes from the scam:

  • Malware: responding to a text can potentially invite malware to get installed on your device which can gather personal information.
  • Unwanted charges: due to the fact that message and data rates may apply to any text exchange, you may notice unwanted charges on your next cellphone 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.

How Do I Handle Smishing Messages?

If you’re looking to “can the spam” when you receive it and end the smishing scam for good, there are a few things you can do:

  • Slow down: Often times acting too quickly when you receive these messages can result in an error. The scammers want you to feel confused and rushed. So remember to slow down and don’t fall into the trap of providing an immediate response.
  • Don’t click: Never ever (ever) click on an in-message link if you suspect that it’s spam.
  • Delete the message: Don’t risk accidentally replying to or saving that content on your phone. If you are reporting the message, feel free to take a screen shot for posterity. But then delete it completely.
  • Report the spam: You can report any suspected text spam directly to your carrier or to the FTC through their complaint assistant.

The silver smishing line in all of this remains: text message scams are far less common that other digital tactics.

"Chart of common delivery methods for scams."
Photo Credit: Scamwatch.gov

Always remember that knowledge is your greatest defense against scams. For a comprehensive list of the most popular scams and frauds in the US, check out this government developed guide.

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

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