How to Identify a Fake Text Message

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Stephanie Faris
Writer
Dolores Bernal
Editor
September 13, 2023
An Alert Text Message on a Cellphone

Photo by RDNE Stock project

Someone wants to buy my house.

The funny thing is, they don’t seem to know they’re texting me, not my husband.

Every couple of weeks, someone reaches out, and the messages all follow a similar pattern.

“Jessica from FSCO” wants to speak to us about our house.

“Jason” wants to talk to us about marketing our house.

“Alex” is on the hunt for places to buy in our town.

Alex is annoyingly persistent, texting us multiple times. I ignore every one of them.

Our house isn’t on the market, and even if it was, I’d use a real estate agent, not some rando who text-bombs me every few weeks.

Spamming me is so not the way to win me over.

Until this very minute, I had no idea what these people were up to. I just frowned at the phone and dismissed the message without responding.

Real estate texts aren’t always scams. Some legitimate real estate agents and wholesalers scout around, pinging random people in the hopes they are interested in selling.

We live in a very hot real estate market with few houses for sale and plenty of interested buyers. So it’s possible…

But there are scammers who mimic legitimate real estate texts. More on that below.

What Are Fake Text Messages?

Telemarketers can no longer rely on voice calls to reach people. We all have Caller ID and mobile providers are getting better at alerting us when a call is possibly spam.

But we all pay attention to our text messages.

I don’t know about you, but text message spam is becoming a nuisance. It’s intrusive even if it’s just a few texts a week. And it’s almost impossible to block someone since most spammers use fake phone numbers.

In some cases, scammers are after information. Known as smishing, this is the practice of convincing you to provide information like passwords, account numbers, or your Social Security number.

In other cases, scammers want to convince you to click to download malware.

Whatever the case, it’s almost always best to ignore text messages from strangers. If you choose to engage, though, it can help to know some of the most common scams to avoid them.

Types of Fake Texts and Scams

Crop ethnic woman with mobile phone

Photo by Tim Samuel

1. Same Number Scams

What is it? We’ve received calls and texts from our area code and even a number similar to ours. But if the text comes from our own number, it gets our attention. With this scam, the texter finds a way to spoof your phone number with the goal of fooling you into taking action. Often the text will appear to come from your wireless carrier, and a link will take you to your account. 

How to spot it: Take a look at your previous texts. If your wireless carrier sends notices via text, chances are it’s from a number that’s not yours. If a call or text is coming from your number, it’s a scam. There’s no reason a legitimate business would spoof your number to reach out to you.

How to avoid it: Never click on links in text messages. The message may report an issue with your account, which could tempt you to click. Instead, open a web browser and go straight to your site. Any problems with your account should appear when you log in. If still in doubt, reach out to customer service.

2. Fake Prize Scams

What is it? This is another persistent form of text spam. The message will alert you to some prize you’ve supposedly won. The problem is you don’t recognize the contest. Or maybe it sounds vaguely familiar, but the prize seems off. Whatever the case, when you respond or click on a link, you’re prompted to provide information to claim your prize, such as your bank account number or an account password. In some cases, they want a fee to claim the prize.

How to spot it: These messages are typically short and to the point, but they scream “scam.” They’ll often have typos and/or plenty of exclamation points. The real clue, though, is in the quest for information. If you’ve won a prize, you shouldn’t have to provide sensitive data or pay money in order to get it.

How to avoid it: If you enter any contests, take note of how winners will be notified. Chances are, it won’t be via text message, but if it is, you’ll know to expect it. Otherwise, disregard any texts claiming you’ve won a prize, particularly if they include a link or dig for information.

✎ Related: Fake Prize, Sweepstakes, and Lottery Scams

3. Delivery Notification Scams

What is it? Another frequent flyer in my text message app is this scam. Either a package is on its way to you, or a delivery attempt failed. It may claim to be from the USPS, FedEx, or UPS, but one common denominator is the tracking link. If you click, you’re taken to a site that seeks to collect a fee or information on you.

How to spot it: I routinely receive package tracking notifications, and they almost always come from the site where I placed the order. The messages should come from the same number if you’ve signed up with a mail delivery service for notifications. With scam texts, the message will come out of the blue, and you won’t immediately be able to identify the associated shipment.

How to avoid it: Instead of clicking links in messages about package deliveries, note the tracking number. You can then go directly to the FedEx, UPS, or USPS website and track from there.

4. Real Estate Scams

What is it? As I mentioned above, sometimes legitimate real estate agents reach out, hoping to convince homeowners to sell. But scammers take advantage of that practice by duplicating the language. Real estate scams aim to convince you to hand over information that can be used for identity fraud or financial gain.

How to spot it: I personally avoid all these messages. I’ve found it’s best to choose a real estate agent with a history of solid sales in the area when it’s time to sell. But scam real estate messages can look identical to the real thing. 

How to avoid it: The best practice is disengaging when someone asks for account information or money. A legitimate real estate agent won’t request that sort of information upfront. I’ve sold multiple houses and have never, once, provided bank account information or money at the start of a new partnership with a real estate agent.

5. Fake Government Communication Scams

What is it? Spammers love to try to convince us that the government uses text messages to communicate. With this scam, you get an email, typically claiming to be from the IRS. The message could say you’re eligible for a refund, or the IRS is trying to reach you about your tax return. It typically uses urgent language and includes a link. When you click on the link, you’re prompted to input sensitive information like your Social Security number (taxpayer ID) or your banking information. 

How to spot it: Spotting a fake government text is easy. The government doesn’t communicate via text message. For the most part, the government uses the U.S. Postal System to communicate with taxpayers. In fact, many IRS audits are simply a letter asking for clarification. You’ll be given a phone number to call or asked to submit a form.  

How to avoid it: Never click a link in text (or email). If you receive a communication from the government of any type, contact the agency directly. ALWAYS CROSS-REFERENCE phone numbers in written communication to phone numbers published online for various agencies.

How To Identify A Fake Text Message Scams

a close up of a person holding a cell phone

Photo by Pradamas Gifarry

Text messages are an important part of life these days. If we need to communicate something without committing to a multi-minute conversation, it’s the way to go.

But that convenience comes at a price. That price is the junk messaging now seeping in.

First up, add your number to the National Do Not Call Registry. It won’t stop scammers but will reduce the noise so you can more easily spot the fakes.

You can also block repeat texts from the same number, although spammers often use spoofing to create a fake number with each text.

From there, you’ll need to hone your spidey senses so you can sort the spam from the scams. 

1. Lack of Relevance

If someone is texting you, that person should know you, right?

That’s one of the basic tests a sender should pass before you take a text seriously.

Does the message reference an item you’re selling? If so, you should actually be selling that item.

Does the message mention an account that’s in jeopardy? If so:

  • Do you have an account with that service?
  • Have you logged in recently?

Often, your first instinct is right. It alerts you when something doesn’t sound right.

Still, as easy as clicking is, remember that a link click could immediately install malware on your device, even if it doesn’t take you to a site that asks you to input sensitive information.

It’s worth the extra time to research and see if something needs your attention.

2. In-Message Links

The best way to avoid phishing attempts is to always eye links with suspicion.

That goes for links in text messages, emails, and social media direct messages. If you see a link, pause your clicking finger and question it.

The language in fake text messages can be urgent and even threatening. The goal is to push you to take action.

But if an issue is urgent, you can still act quickly. Going directly to the website or making a phone call will get you straight to the source. If there is a problem with your account, you’ll be able to straighten it out without putting yourself at risk.

3. Poor Grammar and Spelling

Legitimate sources put effort into their messaging.

You’ll typically receive one of a set of canned texts, and those texts have been approved by management.

Scammers don’t put that much effort into quality control. In fact, you’ll usually find at least one grammar or spelling error in even the shortest texts.

This is a good time to play grammar police. If you see errors, treat a message with skepticism.

4. Local Numbers

A phone call from a local number can definitely grab your attention. At first, I even made the mistake of answering.

But the same doesn’t go for texts. We don’t even have to answer an incoming text to know what’s up. The message is right there on the screen.

That’s why if a text is coming from a LOCAL NUMBER, it gives us all that much more reason to give it a closer look.

That’s especially true if the number is suspiciously close to ours, all the way down to the area code, prefix, and most or all of the line number. (The line number’s the last four digits.)

5. Clickbait Wording

Scam texts are all about that click.

As a result, most scam texts include wording designed to lure your finger to tap on that screen (or mouse).

Scammers don’t want you to take time to research. Or even think. They want you to rush to click and take whatever action follows that click.

Here are a few ways they might do that:

  • Threatening language: From warnings about imminent arrest to possible account closure or fees, scammers have no shame. They may even pose as authorities to convince you that you’re in trouble.
  • Time sensitivity: You must take action immediately or (insert threat here). Maybe your account will be closed, taking all your files with it. The point is time is running out and that ticking clock can be effective in getting people to click now and think about it later.
  • Emotional pleas: In some cases, text messages will make a play for your emotions. For example, a close family member is in trouble, or a cause you believe in needs your help.

All texts from unfamiliar senders should be questioned, especially with scams being so prevalent. You can’t go wrong with taking some extra time to research, even if a message indicates you don’t have a second to spare.

What to Do if You’ve Been Scammed

Scams get the best of us.

Yes, I include myself in that! I haven’t fallen for a text message scam – probably because I spend most of my day disregarding messages that aren’t relevant.

But I’ve been scammed over the years several times. When it happens, the important thing is to take quick action to reduce damage. Here are some steps to take if you think a text scam has come your way.

1. Lock Down Your Finances

If your credit card or bank account has been compromised, that should be your first step. Contact your bank or card issuer, explain what happened, and be prepared for the possibility of your account being closed.

Whether it’s a new card or checking account number, you may have to update your autopay with various creditors.

If your account numbers don’t change, you’ll still have to monitor your finances for a while. You can freeze your credit with ALL THREE credit bureaus to prevent identity theft. That will ensure your information can’t be used to apply for loans or make purchases.

2. Report It

The Federal Trade Commission investigates fraud.

While the agency won’t investigate your case specifically, reporting scam texts puts it on their radar. It’s possible your report will lead to the scammer being shut down.

3. Check Your Devices

Did you click on that link?

It’s okay if you did. Maybe you clicked and saw a fake website asking for your personally identifiable information.

If you click, your device might be infected. Keylogger viruses can lurk in the background, collecting the letters and numbers you type. Those include passwords, usernames, and account numbers.

Services like McAfee, Norton, and Malwarebytes can scan your devices and check for signs of malware. They can also protect those devices moving forward.

4. Invest in Identity Theft Protection

Identity theft comes through various methods. Text messages are one option, but scammers can also slide into your DMs, reach out by phone or email, or hack your device while you’re not paying attention.

Identity theft protection will help keep your credit and your finances safe. In that sense, whether you’ve been a scam victim or not is useful.

Services like Aura, IdentityForce, and LifeLock not only monitor your accounts for signs of fraud, but they’ll also help you out if you ever suffer an identity theft incident.

Conclusion

Text messages keep us in touch with friends and family, but they also give scammers an “in.”

Spam texts are annoying, but scams can impact you personally. Eye each text from an unknown number carefully and ask yourself if it’s legitimate. Over time, you’ll be able to detect and avoid scams immediately.

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