Text Scams: How to Avoid (and Report) Them

Spam texts are surpassing robocalls as the preferred choice of scammers. Here’s how to avoid being a victim.

Photo of a hand holding a cell phone with a text about winning the lottery
(Image credit: Getty Images)

 

In place of all those robocalls, you may notice your cellphone has become the target of spam texts. And just like robocalls, these texts and robotexts are becoming the preferred vehicle for scammers looking to infect your phone, steal your information and take your money. In fact, there’s even a name for it: smishing.

The IRS recently issued a warning, urging taxpayers to remain vigilant after identifying an exponential increase in the number of IRS-themed smishing incidents. “Scam messages often look like they're coming from the IRS, offering lures like fake COVID relief, tax credits or help setting up an IRS online account,” the agency reported. 

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"This is phishing on an industrial scale so thousands of people can be at risk of receiving these scam messages," said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. "In recent months, the IRS has reported multiple large-scale smishing campaigns that have delivered thousands – and even hundreds of thousands – of IRS-themed messages in hours or a few days, far exceeding previous levels of activity."

Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support at AARP, said spam texts are an effective tool for scammers. “Criminals know that most Americans have their devices with them at all times and are constantly engaged with their technology, so their chances of ensuring their next victim with a text message are high,” Nofziger said. “When people receive a text they often quickly glance at it and determine the priority of their response time, scammers know this and use highly emotional language to get the attention of their target, words like ‘immediate, quickly, in danger,’ so many unsuspecting victims quickly follow the instructions without much research.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission, 2022 is on track to be the first year where more people report being contacted by scammers via text than by phone call.

According to Robokiller (opens in new tab), the call-blocking app, Americans received 15.6 billion spam texts in September, nearly 57 spam texts for every person in the United States. As the company puts it, “Spam texts are the new spam call.”

The company says Americans received 87.8 billion spam texts in 2021, compared to 72 billion spam calls. The previous year, there were 55.5 billion spam texts, compared to about 54.5 billion calls. 

According to the Federal Communications Commission, “complaints about unwanted text messages have risen steadily in recent years from approximately 5,700 in 2019,

14,000 in 2020, 15,300 in 2021, to 8,500 through June 30, 2022.”

According to the FTC, scammers use spam texts to trick people into giving the scammers personal information such as passwords, account numbers and Social Security numbers. They either use this information to gain access to your financial accounts and email or they sell the information to other scammers.

Scammers also will try to get you to click on links in text messages by promising things like prizes, gift cards or coupons. They might offer low-or-no-interest credit cards or promise to help pay off student loans.They might say they’ve noticed suspicious activity in your account or send you a fake invoice telling you to contact them if you didn’t authorize a purchase. 

How Text Scams Work

 

Nofziger provided the following examples of people who reported issues with texts to the AARP:

  • A consumer got a text claiming $983 had been charged to his PayPal account and that a credit card application was submitted in his name and there were additional charges on that. The consumer downloaded the screen sharing service AnyDesk and provided access to his device. He later deleted it and changed his banking passwords.
  • A caller reported that she got a text from someone claiming to be from the post office and the caller gave the texter banking information.
  • A consumer received a text asking if she purchased a cellphone. The text appeared to come from Amazon. She was instructed to call a number , and when she did someone answered who claimed to be from the Chase Bank Fraud Division. This person told her that her account had been hacked, and got her to transfer $67,500 into a cryptocurrency account.
  • A caller reported he received a text from the bank that there was fraudulent activity on his account. He called the fraud line and as he was on the phone with them saw $3,000 leave his account. He disputed the action and then a couple days later it happened again. He has been fighting Bank of America for over 2 months over the $6,000 that was unlawfully taken from his account. He has since pulled all but $100 from Bank of America and opened a new account at a different bank, he no longer does any online banking or purchasing so he can protect his money.
  • A caller got a text she thought was a wrong number. The texter was asking for a vet appointment for their dog. When the victim responded that the texter had the wrong number and hoped her dog felt better, a conversation started. The caller ended up sending $10,000 to the scammer’s crypto account, which turned out to be a scam, and lost $10,000.pty list

 

The Better Business Bureau is warning about that last trick: the wrong number text. As the BBB explains this, “You receive a text that reads something like this: ‘Hey is this John? It’s Amanda. We chatted on Tinder before when I came to visit my cousin but we never met irl. I’m back in town if you want to meet up this time, are you free?’”

You might be tempted to reply to the text telling the sender they got the wrong number. This rewards the scammer, who will plow ahead to keep the conversation going. They might send you some compliments or some photos of “Amanda” who happens to be scantily clad. The stories will change in an effort to get you to reply.

“If you continue to engage with the stranger, who is really a chatbot, it tries to trick you into registering for dating or adult websites,” The BBB warns. “Your new ‘friend’ will encourage you to sign up for a specific website to see more explicit photos, which may involve offering up your credit card number. Considering the dubious nature of this scam, if you hand over your credit card information at any point, you could be putting yourself at risk for fraudulent charges and identity theft.”

Another AARP caller reported receiving a text purporting to come from the U.S. Postal Service. The caller wound up sending that texter banking information. The postal service has issued its own warning about such texts and suggests you report these smishing attempts to spam@uspis.gov.

How to Avoid Being Scammed Via Text 

 

The FCC and the FTC offer the following advice to protect yourself:

  • Do not respond to suspicious texts, even if the message requests that you "text STOP" to end messages.
  • Do not click on any links you receive in texts.
  • Do not provide any information via text or website.
  • Forward unwanted texts to SPAM (7726).
  • Delete all suspicious texts.
  • If you think a text message might be legitimate, contact the company using a phone number or website you know is real and not the information in the text.
  • The wireless industry has a website, CTIA.org, offering options from different cellular providers and third parties. According to the site, major wireless providers offer various tools and solutions that you can engage or may be built into your device to block or flag calls: AT&T Call Protect (opens in new tab); Verizon Call Filter (opens in new tab); T-Mobile Scam ID, Scam Block, Name ID (opens in new tab); U.S. Cellular Call Guardian.
  • Update your smart device OS and security apps.
  • Consider installing anti-malware software.
  • Review companies’ policies regarding opting out of text alerts and selling/sharing your
  • information.
  • Review text blocking tools in your mobile phone settings, available third-party apps and your mobile phone carrier’s offerings.
  • Report scam texts it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
Senior Retirement Editor, Kiplinger.com

Elaine Silvestrini has had an extensive career as a newspaper and online journalist, primarily covering legal issues at the Tampa Tribune and the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey. In more recent years, she's written for several marketing, legal and financial websites, including Annuity.org and LegalExaminer.com, and the newsletters Auto Insurance Report and Property Insurance Report.