Congratulations! You've just won $100,000! Finish reading this post, and it will be transferred to your account by the end of the day.
Sounds too good to be true? And familiar, perhaps?
As the sentence above is clearly just a (not so funny) joke, text message scam is very real. Scammers are increasingly taking advantage of people who are less aware of what scam actually is or have trouble identifying it. In fact, the number of mobile phishing attempts has increased by 325% in Q3 2020 compared to Q2 of the same year.
To prevent losses, it's essential to learn how to spot a potential text message scam and avoid falling victim to it.
Below you’ll find a list of tips on how to identify text scam and a couple of spam text messages examples that should help you stay safe once scammers decide to target your inbox with amazing yet, unfortunately, fake offers.
What is a text message scam?
A text message scam, also called smishing or SMS phishing, is an attempt to trick someone into revealing sensitive information (personal or financial) by sending unsolicited SMS messages.
Scammers often impersonate well-known companies, banks, government institutions, mobile operators – basically, anyone the recipient may trust enough and give scammers access to their personal details.
They create a hypothetical situation and compose fake text messages so that the recipient would share their usernames and passwords, credit card details, PINs, or any other information, leading to financial loss.
Spam text message example
How to identify a fake text message?
Although at first glance, spam text messages might look quite convincing, there are several warning signs you should pay attention to if you have even the slightest doubt of the SMS message you’ve just got being real.
1. Irrelevant content
If it looks that the text message you've received is meant for another person or has nothing to do with your recent activity, that’s the first indication of a possible scam.
One of the most common text scam examples will announce that you’ve just won a prize in some competition. To redeem that prize, whether it’s a gift or cash, you will be asked to complete a few steps, generally giving away your sensitive information while doing so.
Another popular example of scam text messages is a delivery notification from a trusted carrier. Usually, you'll be informed of a failed delivery or expected to set delivery preferences/reschedule following a sketchy link.
In both of these or similar situations, think – have you participated in some kind of contest at all? Have you recently bought something online? Is there anything in the message that just doesn’t make sense?
2. Poor grammar
Poor grammar and misspellings don‘t automatically indicate SMS spam, especially if you know the sender. But if you find yourself wondering how a business or organization that tries to reach out to you made such grammatical mistakes, that might be your first clue.
Even though errors can happen (we‘re all humans, after all), a legitimate company will rarely send weirdly-structured messages that lack proper punctuation or sound like they were just directly translated from some far-away language.
Such unprofessionalism is a major red flag in the context of text message phishing, and you shouldn‘t follow any requirements without making sure about the origin of that SMS.
3. Unknown/long numbers
Identifying a text scam based on an unknown number only is tricky. Just like with poor grammar, getting a message from an unknown number doesn’t 100% mean that someone’s trying to scam you.
The problem arises when that unknown number is lengthy, too random, or includes an awkwardly written name of a company (the result of SMS spoofing). With some exceptions (e.g., international numbers), long and weird numbers are often a sign of a text message scam.
If in doubt, check the official number of an organization that is texting you (quickly done online) or contact them directly if the issue seems to be serious/urgent before acting on anything.
4. Call for immediate action
Scammers like to use urgency to succeed, leaving you as little time as possible to figure it all out. They try to play with emotions and push you to act immediately so that you'd make your decision driven by feelings (of worry) rather than logic.
Some of the most common spam text messages examples that use urgency are:
- Your family member needs help. It's difficult to keep a cold heart when you're told that someone you love may be in trouble or danger.
- Your bank account was temporarily suspended or any other bank-related message, really. Since safety is your biggest concern when it comes to your savings, you may want to act on that message fast and find out what’s going on in order not to lose any money. Unfortunately, acting fast in such situations can cause you just that.
- Government text scams. You may encounter messages “sent by official government agencies” like the IRS trying to scare you about some legal issues. The truth is that the government will never use a simple SMS to contact you for such matters and ask for sensitive information, and they even state this on their websites.
5. Suspicious links
Links in SMS messages are a very common practice since text messages are meant to achieve some specific goal, and for that, the recipient must click through. Therefore, you shouldn't worry about every link you receive, but you must still examine them carefully before acting.
Never open a link if:
- You don’t know the sender
- The link contains weird characters (letters and numbers)
- The link is abnormally long
- The content of the message is suspicious and includes a weird shortened link.
As for the short links, they are not a problem in general. Most companies use URL shorteners to create branded links that help them appear more trustworthy and track their SMS campaigns. But they are not that difficult to compromise, so you have to evaluate the context of the message itself if you're being convinced to follow a bunch of random characters that were just put together into a short link.
Tips to avoid falling victim to text message scam
Suppose you've received a text message that “meets all the scam requirements" mentioned above.
What to do? And most importantly, what not to do next?
First, calm down
If you’ve received a text message that makes your heart race, fight the urge to act immediately and go over it one more time. Do you know the origin of this SMS? How is it written? Does it contain any weird links?
Don't let emotions take over and seriously consider it a possible scam.
Do your research before acting
Don’t trust text messages blindly, especially if the sender is not 100% clear. If it refers to some organization, look it up online first. Check their official phone number, their policy on such things as communicating via text messages, or use the contact information on their website to get in touch directly. If the text message refers to your family member, make sure to contact him/her first.
Don’t share any sensitive information, ever
None of the legitimate companies or organizations, be it a bank, a government agency, or a delivery company, will ever ask to share sensitive information via text messages or any other communication channel.
No matter how convincing it looks, always remember that your personal details are your top-secret, and if there’s ever something wrong, sharing them after receiving a simple text message is not the way to deal with serious issues.
Although replying to spam text messages might not do any harm, it will let scammers know that your number is active, and the messages they send do get opened. Therefore, this might encourage even more fake SMS of any kind.
Don’t click on suspicious links
This couldn’t be stressed enough – the message itself can’t do much harm to you, but following weird links included in unexpected messages can. Even if you don’t provide any information yourself, opening a link can, for instance, download malware to your phone that will act against your will.
When you get unsolicited text messages, follow the same practices as you do when dealing with spam and unknown senders in your email inbox. Even if you think you know the person or a company that has just sent you an SMS, if it’s unusual, stay alert.
How to report a scam text message?
Whether or not you acted on a text message that appeared to be fake, you should still report it. You can:
- Report a fraudulent message to your mobile network operator. This may help prevent text scams from spreading and causing losses to other people.
- Report it to the company that’s being impersonated. If a scammer hides behind the name of some brand, make sure that the company knows it. For instance, if you’ve received a fake text from your bank, inform them about this immediately so that they can provide instructions on their website or social media channels.
- Report SMS spam to the authorities. If you live in the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is one of the main ways to go.
Look for common text scam signs in unexpected SMS messages
There’s no way to prevent scammers from sending unwanted text messages to your phone but learning the most common red flags in SMS communication can help you stay safe.
When you come across a suspicious SMS, the critical thing to remember is not to act instantly, just like scammers want you to do. Staying aware of a scam possibility, knowing how to recognize it, and what to do next can help prevent yourself from harm and reduce the chances of other people falling victim to it. Put simply, equipping yourself with knowledge is the #1 tip for avoiding possible damage regarding text message scams.