Photo by mikoto.raw Photographer
I get them, and YOU get them.
Those text messages that appear like spam or just seem a little odd.
Perhaps they’re an old contact that doesn’t sound like themselves texting out of nowhere.
Perhaps you won a lottery you know you didn’t sign up for.
Or, it could be borderline gibberish in SMS form.
Most of these texts are scams and part of a family of text message scams that have become more prevalent in recent years.
Not every text you get is there to benefit you. Many messages attempt to scam us out of financial or personal information. In other cases, it’s a more common scam to get us out of our money after developing trust with a stranger.
Here’s what you need to know about text message scams and how to deal with them.
Some Facts About Text Message Scams
How serious is the problem?
This is only the tip of the iceberg. All trends and additional statistics indicate that text message scams are becoming more common and stealing more from people yearly.
How Did They Get Your Phone Number?
It’s a good question with various answers.
- They might have a bot crawl the internet for numbers, and you might have yours listed online. Scammers aren’t going for quality, just quantity. If it’s a number, they’ll try it.
- Third-party data providers that have your phone number are more than willing to sell it for a quick buck. These data providers could have gotten your number from anything. This ranges from applying for credit to calling an 800 number one time.
- A data breach might have led to your phone number getting leaked. This leaked data is then scooped up or bought by scammers and cybercriminals.
Finding someone’s phone number online isn’t difficult, and it’s easy to get a large bank of numbers to work from. Chances are your number is just part of the batch.
Who Sends These Text Message Scams?
Photo by Mikhail Nilov
Hackers and scammers, obviously.
Though of course, it’s a bit more complex than that.
Most cybercriminal activity is not done by lone hackers anymore. In fact, most cybercriminal or scammer activity is done by collectives or organizations specializing in such activities. Their main goal is to make money, and they organize to do it.
This means a few things:
1. They have much more energy and organizational experience dealing with this than you do.
2. They have a playbook that’s tried and tested.
How Do Text Message Scams Work?
So how do the scammers do it? What is that playbook?
There are programs that can automatically send messages at a rate of hundreds or thousands per minute. Scammers, or the larger organizations discussed earlier, will use these systems to send many initial texts, or at least use them with a template and their own efforts.
Scammers might also use an email-to-text service to avoid detection or tracing on their end. Be wary of texts from four-digit or otherwise suspicious numbers.
If a scam requires more in-person social engineering, a scammer will intervene personally after the scam gets a nibble in the form of a response.
The exact details will vary from scam to scam.
The Psychological Tricks Behind Text Message Scams
Typically, a text message scam ties to work in one or more of the following ways:
Understanding and recognizing these tricks will be the basis for defending yourself against these scams, beyond ignoring the texts.
We’ll be getting more into the specifics of common scams shortly, but remember that they typically have several threads in common.
What Happens If You Fall for Text Message Scams?
It can depend on the exact scam in question.
9 Common Text Message Scams
- Banking Text Message Scams
- UPS or Package Scams
- Coupon or “Special Offer” Scams
- Sweepstakes Scams
- The Wrong Number
- Contact Impersonation Scam
- Credit/Debit Card Alert Scams
- IRS or Tax Agency Scams
- Two-Factor Authentication Scams
Note that these are just the most common scams, and many other variations and types of scams exist.
1. Banking Text Message Scams
You might get a scam message from someone claiming to be Bank of America, Wells Fargo, or another bank. They will request information or warn you that your account will be closed unless you take “immediate action.” It might be more subtle, and ask you to click a link to verify your identity.
It’s most amusing when you get a message from a bank you don’t belong to. However, if it’s one you do belong to, it can be alarming when you first see it. Nonetheless, this is a common scam, and you must carefully consider any text you get from a banking institution.
Defense: Don’t click any links in the text message. Remember that you can always contact customer support via phone or their official website. Also, a legitimate financial institution will never ask you for personal or financial information via text message. If a text does so, ignore it and report it.
2. UPS or Package Scams
Most people get text messages with packages, and scammers know this.
You might be asked via text to provide more personal information or login information to a related account. You might be asked to click a link to verify your identity or accept a package. This inevitably leads to malware or identity theft or malware on your device.
Defense: Consider the action they want you to take. Also, consider the link being used. UPS probably isn’t going to use a link that is a random collection of letters. Look for a sense of urgency or unsolicited offers and messages.
Additionally, consider the information given. Does it match up with an expected package? If not, it’s likely a scam.
If you’re completely uncertain, ignore the message and investigate it through the delivery company’s website or other means. You can usually safely track the delivery online.
3. Coupon or “Special Offer” Scams
You have been selected for a special offer or a free widget! All you need to do is click a link, type in some details, and you will receive said widget.
You might see it as a special deal or discount offer, typically for a limited time (to add that oh-so-important sense of urgency). This will lead to identity theft or at least some stolen information if not malware on your device.
A variation of this is you might have won a “special award” in your industry or a general human being. And while I’m sure you’re a wonderful human being, there aren’t any awards worth getting that are sent out exclusively through text.
Defense: Unless you signed up for such a program specifically and know the sender is a legitimate business number, ignore and delete such messages. Be on the lookout for any offer that’s too good to be true, misspellings, and other things that seem off about the text.
4. Sweepstakes Scams
“!!YOU WON A GRAND PRIZE!!!”, the text message states with a full cavalcade of colors and emojis. All you need to do is provide a bit of information on your bank account. No, they can’t send a check. And yes, they do need you to send them a quick amount of money first to release the money (for some reason)!
Sweepstakes and lottery scams are common scams you’ll see in email or even snail mail sometimes. You haven’t won anything.
Defense: If you get a message from a strange number saying you won something you were not expecting, delete it. Anyone legitimate will contact you via some other means.
5. The Wrong Number
In one of the odder yet older text message scams, someone will pretend to be someone texting from the wrong number. You mention they have the wrong number, and then they thank you. And they keep texting you, complimenting you. They want to get to know you better.
You think you’ve found a new friend in the strangest of ways. You plan on meeting up and calling and discussing your days and all sorts of beautiful things!
And then they want money.
Defense: Ignore the message. If it’s a legitimate wrong number (unlikely today), they’ll find out in due time. If you respond, a scammer will know your number is active, leading to further harassment.
6. Contact Impersonation Scam
You’re more likely to see this type of thing on social media, but a number you know might get taken over by a scammer, who then sees what they can get out of people by either sending out links or impersonating the owner of the number, asking for money, gift certificates, etc.
Alternatively, since no one remembers phone numbers anymore, someone might just take a shot in the dark. Think of the classic “Hi grandma I got picked up by the police in a huge mistake and need bail money asap k thks bye” type of scam.
Defense: If you’re suspicious, contact the person through a separate channel of communication you know is secure. Voice and/or video confirmation are especially helpful.
7. Credit/Debit Card Alert Scams
You might get a text message saying that your credit or debit card has been locked, and you need to confirm a purchase or unlock the card by providing X details or by going to this link and inputting information.
Defense: Remember that any legitimate financial institution isn’t going to ask you for information in this way. Also, look for signs that the sender isn’t who they say they are.
8. IRS or Tax Agency Scams
“YOU OWE MONEY TO THE IRS OR THEY OWE YOU MONEY AND YOU NEED TO RESPOND TO THIS MESSAGE NOW! OR ELSE!!!!”
Typically with some personal information, your social security number, and other things of the source. Or you just click a link that downloads malware if the scammer is particularly lazy.
In truth, it’s no different than the usual robocall scams involving the IRS or the national tax agency that you likely got before.
Defense: The IRS will not contact you about these things over text. Delete the message and move on.
9. Two-Factor Authentication Scams
You might occasionally get a scam in the form of a false two-factor authentication request. It might direct you towards a website much like one of the ones you commonly use, perhaps a social media account or banking website.
Defense: If you did not request two-factor authentication recently and get such a text, it’s either a scam or an alert you should check the account in question. You shouldn’t click on any link or provide any information.
How To Generally Recognize a Text Message Scam?
The best way to deal with a text message scam is to delete it. Yet how to identify a fake text message, especially the more thought-out ones?
You get better at it over time, but what helps the most is asking yourself three simple questions:
Who Is the Sender?
Is the sender showing any signs that they are not who they say they are? Does the sender have any legitimate business with you? Were they expecting you? Anything outside of expectations is likely to be a problem.
Is It Too Good to Be True?
Are you being offered thousands of dollars or free tickets out of nowhere? Is someone proclaiming to be the love of your life on a random text message? There’s no such thing as a free lunch. And if they were handing out free lunches, they probably aren’t coming over a text message.
What Do They Want?
Is the sender asking you to click a suspicious link or send personal information? Do they want compliance right away? If so, then it is worthy of suspicion.
How to Recover from a Text Message Scam?
If you get caught up in a text message scam, don’t panic. It happens to many of us at one time or another. Go by the following steps:
1. Cut Off and Block the Scammer
First things first, make sure that no further damage can be done. You need to cut off the offender. Block the number, delete the message, and make sure they don’t have further access to you.
2. Report to the Proper Channels
The proper channels will vary depending on the type of scam involved. The FTC has a site you can use. If you have any insurance against scams or services that help with this sort of thing (check with your bank or credit card provider), report it to them. You may be able to get help.
3. Check for Identity Theft and Other Effects
Identity theft is a common consequence of text message scams.
You can easily monitor for and defend against identity theft by using Aura or another identity theft protection service we recommend, which will do most of the heavy lifting for you and alert you if anything is wrong.
You should also be on the lookout for yourself. If necessary, freeze your credit and accounts until the situation has passed.
4. Scan Your Devices and Accounts for Intrusion and Malware
Sometimes a virus will sneak onto your smartphone after you click on a text message scam. You need to know it’s out of your device. Use a security app from a trusted company such as Norton or McAfee, and regularly run scans as a habit in the future.
5. Change Passwords as Needed
You should be changing your passwords and PINs regularly anyhow. Consider this part of your regular routine. If doing so manually is a hassle, try a password manager such as NordPass or Bitwarden.
Text Message Scam Post-Mortem: Breathe and Adjust Your Security Habits
By this point, you’ve done what you can to resolve the situation. Yet you aren’t done just yet. You aren’t bad or stupid for making a mistake (though the scammer is), but it is bad not to learn from what happened.
Understand the steps you should have taken and what made you fall for the scam in the first place, and address it and educate yourself as much as possible.
Conclusion – You Can Protect Yourself
If you are the victim of a text message scam, remember not to panic, follow the instructions above, and use your best judgment to deal with the situation. If you regularly get bombarded with those texts, consider looking into apps or measures to reduce them and stay vigilant.
With the right identity theft protection service (such as Aura), your accounts can be monitored for suspicious activity to protect you. This will help you know whether you fall for a text message scam or not, you’ll be notified if there’s suspicious activity on your account.