Got a Text From an Unfamiliar Number? It May Be a Scammer

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  • "Smishing" scams are delivered via text message.
  • Scammers may tell you there's something wrong with one of your accounts or that you've won a prize to get you to respond.
  • Don't click on links in weird text messages, and keep your smartphone's software up to date.

Criminals are always upping their game, so here's how to spot and avoid their new scams.

Everyone is busy these days -- we're all watching our wallets, and we're all glued to our smartphones. While this technology has made tasks like paying bills and checking a bank account balance faster and easier (are you old enough to remember when you had to call the bank or even visit a branch to learn your balance?), it's also opened us up to getting scammed for our financial and personal data. Here's what you need to know about a new scamming method called "smishing," as well as the best ways to avoid becoming a victim.

'Smishing'? What's that?

You've probably heard of phishing by now. Phishing is when scammers try to fool consumers by impersonating legitimate companies you may already do business with. If you got an email or a phone call from someone purporting to be from your bank, would you think twice about trusting it? You should. Smishing is the same set of techniques, except the scammers are targeting you via SMS, or text messaging, rather than by a phone call or an email. Text messages have become a part of everyday life for many people, and this makes this type of scam particularly dangerous.

According to the Truecaller Insights 2022 U.S. Spam & Scam Report, 86% of Americans now say they only answer the phone if the caller or business trying to reach them is someone they can identify. With this major shift in communication, it's no surprise that text message scams have become so common. The FBI's Internet Crime Report 2021 states that over 320,000 Americans fell victim to phishing, smishing, and other related smartphone scams last year, resulting in a loss of over $44 million.

Common smishing techniques

Here are a few examples of the types of smishing messages you might receive. All of these will have a sense of urgency, in hopes of getting you to click a link and give up your personal data without thinking it through first:

1. 'You're a winner!'

You might receive a text message saying you've won a prize, maybe a lottery you never entered, a free cruise passage, or even a retail gift card. All you have to do is click the link to claim your winnings.

2. 'There's something wrong with your account!'

Scammers pretending to be your bank may text you with a link to put in your login name and password so you can resolve a supposed problem with your account. In reality, they're just stealing your login info.

3. 'Take our survey!'

Even something as innocuous as a link to a survey can be designed to steal your personal data, like account information.

Two of the most common smishing techniques in 2021, according to the credit bureau Experian, were package delivery scams, where the receiver would be prompted to click a link to track a package, and COVID-19 test scams, where scammers offered testing kits if the text recipient gave out personal information.

Just receiving a scam text message isn't enough to put your personal data at risk. But if you respond to a message with your information, or click on a link in a text message and provide data, such as your bank account login and password, you're in dangerous waters.

Legitimate businesses, such as your bank, require you to opt in before you receive text messages from them. It can be hard to remember which boxes you've checked in the course of your daily life on the internet, so if you're not sure whether a message could be from a real business, reach out to them directly. Note that federal government agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department, will not initiate contact with you via text message, email, or even a phone call. They will send a letter through the mail.

What should you do?

It can be very easy to forget safety and security when you have a million things going on and you receive an unexpected text message asking you to take action. In the moment, stop and think before responding or clicking any suspicious links. A suspicious link might just be a string of random letters and numbers. And the message itself might be mis-formatted or come with misspelled words or bad grammar. It's best not to respond at all to these messages. If you text back "STOP" or "UNSUBSCRIBE" to a potential scammer, you're confirming that your phone number is an active one.

If the message purports to be from your bank or another company you do business with, and you are concerned that there really is something wrong, get in touch with the company directly. Log into your bank account via their website or app, rather than via a link in a suspicious text message, and check things out for yourself.

Keep your phone's operating system and browser up to date. It can be time consuming, but when your phone prompts you to install that update, make sure you do. As scammers get better at ripping off consumers, tech companies respond by plugging holes in their security systems for consumer tech.

Do what you can to avoid falling victim to smishing scams

It can be scary out there on the internet, but if you can pause and take a breath when you receive a text from a weird number, you can remember these tips and breathe a little easier while still keeping your personal information and financial data safe.

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