Your smartphone isn’t always your friend. The device that makes it easy to bank, browse the Internet and stay in touch with family and friends is also a great way for scammers to invade your life.
Scammers have increasingly turned to text messages to lure unsuspecting people into giving them their personal information that can be used to access their accounts or steal their identities. In fact, text messages were the most common contact method used by scammers in frauds reported to the Federal Trade Commission in 2021. And the total amount reported lost to text message scams was $92 million.
Fraudsters often use scare tactics to make people think their bank accounts or credit cards have been compromised. They can “spoof” (alter) a phone number to make it look as though the text is coming from a bank or a business. Amazon recently reported that high-tech thieves have even found a way to insert scam links into legitimate text communications sent to Amazon customers.
Considering that scam texts can be so convincing, it’s important to be able to recognize the red flags to steer clear of these schemes.
Common text scams
Sooner or later, you will get scam texts. Enormous numbers of automated texts can be sent very cheaply to multiple phone numbers, even to the point of sorting them by area code.
It’s important to know your enemy. Here are some of the most common schemes going around.
A common text scam often begins with “Bank Fraud Alert.” This phrase is guaranteed to get attention and induce anxiety, which can lead to poor reasoning skills. It goes on to say something like, “Did you approve a transaction for $1,000? Reply YES or NO.”
Surely it couldn’t hurt to reply with one word, right?
Wrong. The scammer will now know your number is active and will follow up with a call that looks like it’s from your bank. (It isn’t.)
In some cases, the crook will tell you how to connect a digital payment app such as Zelle to your account then ask you to share the verification code that the (real) bank just sent. The thief will use the code to set up an account and collect the money. This particular scam is hard to fight because you did approve the transaction.
Scammers also send fraud alerts and suspicious account activity alerts that supposedly are from companies such as Amazon, Netflix and PayPal. The messages typically claim that you must click on a link to unlock your account or to prevent your membership from being canceled. Sometimes, these scams are easy to detect because of the poor grammar and awkward phrasing in them (see the image below).
Relief and refund scams
Some texts offer to help you pay off student loans, or tell you that you’re owed a refund of some sort. It might even be an alert about a tax refund because Internal Revenue Service impersonators are now operating via text as well as by phone.
During the height of the pandemic, scammers offered “COVID relief payments” (which didn’t exist) via text. Thieves do these things to get victims’ personal information.
Purchase and delivery scams
You might get a text saying that a package is ready, and that you need to respond to arrange for delivery. In a time when we order so much online, this scam is easy to believe.
Or you might get an “invoice” for something you allegedly ordered, but if you didn’t order it, you need to contact the sender to let them know. Guess what? It’s fake. While you’re on the line, they’ll try to get personal information from you.
The Federal Trade Commission reported a recent spike in scam texts impersonating retailers such as Costco and The Home Depot, along with the U.S. Postal Service. The texts offered a chance to take a survey and win a free item or warned of an undelivered package.
All, of course, were scams designed to part victims from their money.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, these scams offer you the chance to get free prizes, coupons, gift cards or even vacations. All you need to do is reply.
However, the scammer will then ask for lots of personal information, and use that information to steal from you. To add insult to injury, the crook may even sell your contact information to other scammers.
How to spot a scam text
Be on the lookout for these signs that a text message is a scam.
Poorly spelled or grammatically incorrect messages
Messages with phrasing or spelling that indicate they came from non-English speakers
Being asked to pay for shipping for a “free” prize
Messages purporting to be from government agencies, telling you that you are due a refund or owe a fine (government agencies don’t send this information via text)
Notification that you won a sweepstakes or a lottery
Being told you need to pay a re-delivery charge for a package
How to avoid scam texts
Cyberscammers are getting more sophisticated by the hour. That’s why it’s essential to keep a close eye on text messages. Here are some ways to thwart the thieves.
If the text message looks even a little suspicious, don’t answer. This includes not replying with a message of “STOP,” because now the crooks know your number works and may try again. They might also sell it to another thief.
As noted earlier, don’t respond if asked to confirm a yes/no question.
Never click on attachments or hyperlinks in any of these messages. If you worry that your bank really is trying to get in touch with you, call the number on the back of your debit card or credit card. If you get a message that’s allegedly from a retailer, contact customer service directly (not from the phone number the text provides).
Some cellphone service providers let you forward unwanted texts to 7726. This blocks the caller from your number and helps the company find and block these messages going forward.
Consider a call-blocking app. The wireless industry group CTIA lists 15 of the top apps, based on publicly available data, for both iOS and Android devices. Some are free, and some have monthly or annual fees.
Another more comprehensive option to consider is a service such as Carefull, which provides account, credit and identity monitoring along with a spam blocker. Carefull members can select their phone provider and device type, and they'll be automatically sent a link to install their provider's preferred spam call blocking application. Every member also gets a direct line to a Care Agent for assistance installing the spam blocker.
Report scam texts
As noted above, forwarding the text to 7726 is an option. You should also report it to the Federal Trade Commission’s website, ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
The bottom line
Smartphones are an integral part of modern life. They keep us in touch with family and friends, allow us to transact business from the comfort of our homes, and even get virtual medical care.
Thanks to doorbell cameras and other smart security solutions, smartphones can help protect our loved ones. These devices let us FaceTime or do Zoom meetups with friends and family who live far away.
Few people would willingly give up these sorts of benefits. Scammers know this and will keep trying to invade our homes. Do all you can to keep thieves from the virtual door, whether it’s your own or a vulnerable adult’s.
Former print journalist Donna Freedman has been writing about personal finance online since 2006. She has been on staff or written for dozens of websites, including MSN Money, Get Rich Slowly, NerdWallet, Money Talks News, Experian, U.S. News & World Report, Vox, Daily Worth, NextAvenue and Retail Me Not. She blogs about money and midlife at DonnaFreedman.com.