How To Know If You’ve Received a Fake USPS Tracking Number

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J.R. Tietsort

Chief Information Security Officer at Aura

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    Can USPS Tracking Numbers Be Faked?

    When Reed Hoskinson’s gardening equipment didn't arrive on time, he assumed it was a delivery snag. But after weeks without his package, he decided to take matters into his own hands.[*]

    First, Reed tried to contact the seller. He emailed over and over to no avail. Then, he filed a resolution claim with PayPal. As part of their investigation, PayPal reached out to the seller, who finally provided a tracking number.

    Reed was relieved. He thought maybe his supplies would show up after all. But this was just the beginning of an elaborate scam.

    The USPS tracking number was for a package that had already been delivered to a different address. Frustrated, Reed looked up other ways to get in touch with the vendor. In his search, he discovered that Google flagged the site as fraudulent. With that evidence, and weeks of corresponding with PayPal, Reed finally got his money back.

    Not everyone is so lucky. This story was picked up by local news, but fake USPS tracking numbers and USPS text scams have plagued people throughout the United States — leading to credit card fraud and even identity theft.

    What Is a USPS Text Scam?

    A USPS text scam is a form of phishing in which a malicious actor sends text messages pretending to be from the U.S. Postal Service.

    USPS scam text messages claim that you “missed” a delivery and include a link to reschedule it. But the link isn’t from the U.S. Postal Service, and clicking on it can lead to devastating consequences.

    Thankfully, there are some commonalities among USPS text scams that can help you learn how to identify them.

    • Strange phone numbers: Typically, SMS marketing messages come from five-digit numbers, but USPS text scams come from personal 10-digit cell phone numbers.
    • A lack of information: If you’ve missed a delivery that you weren’t expecting, you’re probably curious about what it might be. But USPS text scams don’t always provide package tracking numbers. And if they do, they don’t match your confirmation email.
    • An unofficial URL: Links in USPS text scams look similar to what you’d see on the real USPS website, but they are slightly different. Look out for dashes or extra words and numbers, such as “usps-parcel-tracking.com.” Scammers often spoof website URLs, display names, and phone numbers to convince victims that they are interacting with a trusted source.
    • A “settlement” amount: Sometimes, USPS text scams allude to a “settlement” payment. Settlement amounts are small, between $1–$5, so they seem authentic but are just part of a larger ploy to gather credit card information.
    USPS smishing text example
    Notice that this text was sent from a typical 10-digit phone number, has a non-USPS link, and an odd shipment number. Source: WFAA News

    If you’re not examining your text messages closely, it’s easy to overlook these clues. Scammers know that USPS is a trusted organization.

    Plus, many people have become more avid online shoppers in recent years. So getting a notification about a missed delivery doesn’t seem that unusual. Fraudsters send texts to enough people that they are likely to con at least a few obliging victims.

    📚 Related: Was Your Amazon Package Stolen? Here’s What To Do

    What happens if you click on a USPS smishing link?

    USPS text scams are a form of smishing, which is short for “SMS phishing.” Scammers send fraudulent text messages impersonating a person or business — in this case, the United States Postal Service — to collect sensitive information or spread malware. Smishing texts contain embedded links which might be: 

    • Phishing websites designed to steal information. A link may prompt you to “log in” to your USPS account. Scammers can steal that username and password and use it to access other applications.
    • Inadvertent malware downloads. Links may prompt you to download a "USPS" app. The app looks legitimate at first glance but infects your phone with malware or spyware. You won’t be able to use your phone, and scammers will steal (and potentially sell) your information stored on it.
    • Requests for payments to release packages. You may be asked to pay a fee to “relinquish” your package. On the back end, scammers steal your financial data.

    USPS text smishing scams can expose sensitive information, contaminate your phone with malware, and even cause full-blown identity theft.

    📚 Related: How To Block Websites on iPhones and iPads [4 Ways]

    How Scammers Target You With Fake Tracking Numbers

    USPS-related scams aren’t limited to text messages. They can apply to tracking numbers, too.

    Customers use USPS tracking numbers to see where their package is in real-time. They can also get an estimate of the package's delivery date.

    Scammers circumvent this process to get free products, steal private information, or access people’s bank accounts and debit cards. Here are some of the ways that scammers use fake tracking numbers to trick unsuspecting victims:

    Delivery completed a week before you placed the order

    Mr. Hoskinson’s story, described at the beginning of this article, is a prime case of tracking number fraud.

    In these instances, threat actors create phony websites to “sell” products that they never intend to ship. Scammers publicize these sites on social media to entice people to buy.

    When folks purchase items from the fake store, they receive a confirmation email with a USPS tracking number. But the tracking number pertains to a different order that’s already been delivered.

    Fake tracking label example
    Source: East Idaho News

    Customers contact the seller — but emails go unread, calls go unanswered, and scammers walk away with money in their pockets.

    What to do:

    1. Search for the tracking number on the USPS website. Confirm that the delivery was:

    • Made to the wrong location
    • Completed with the wrong items
    • Made before you even placed an order

    2. Attempt to contact the seller. Often, this will not result in a reply; but it will serve as evidence in future investigations.

    3. Contact the payment processor, such as PayPal or your credit card company. They are the best sources for recovering your payment.

    4. Report mail fraud to the Postal Inspection Service. Law enforcement agents will investigate your case and make others aware of trending scams.

    📚 Related: The Latest UPS Text Scams To Watch Out For (2022)

    Incorrect tracking number

    Some scammers have learned that they don’t even have to provide working tracking numbers. They simply send what looks like a normal order confirmation email with a phony number. Recipients never check the tracking number until they haven’t received a package (or received a package with the wrong items).

     What to do:

    • Cross-check the tracking number on the USPS site. If it doesn’t pull up your order, it’s likely fraudulent.
    • Reach out to the USPS help desk to confirm the faulty tracking number.
    • Contact the payment processor, such as PayPal. Again, whichever payment processor you used is the best source for recovering your payment.
    • Open a case with the Postal Inspection Service to protect yourself and others.

    Incorrect USPS deliveries

    According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), there’s an uptick in fraudulent USPS, FedEx, and Amazon deliveries during the holiday season. People order items online and receive a confirmation email from USPS with a tracking number. But when their package arrives, it’s completely different from what they ordered.

    One person purchased a six-foot artificial Christmas tree but “received a bottle brush Christmas tree no bigger than her hand.” Another person interviewed by the BBB ordered a machine washer and instead received “a yellow shirt not worth $2.”

    As you might expect, these victims attempted to contact the sellers and got no response.

    What to do:

    • Reach out to the seller. Again, they probably will not respond, but this is the first step in every investigation.
    • Contact the payment processor, such as PayPal. They are aware of these potential scams and will refund customers when provided with evidence. 
    • Open a case with the Postal Inspection Service. Submit all relevant paperwork; this will provide the Post Office with the best chance of catching the perpetrator.

    💡 Related: The Worst Holidays Scams of The Year (and How To Avoid Them) →

    You’ve Received a Fake USPS Tracking Number If:

    • Links to tracking numbers look fishy. One good thing about text messages is that you can usually see the full link. Links that don’t match “USPS.com” are part of a scam.
    • Your tracking number doesn’t show up in the USPS portal. Every tracking number is unique and should match the one you received in a confirmation email. If it doesn’t appear in a search, it’s a bogus number.
    • Your delivery date was earlier than when you placed an order. USPS scams can involve real tracking numbers. The catch is that those tracking numbers are for orders that were already delivered. Double-check tracking numbers on the USPS site, and read delivery information carefully.
    • You receive follow-up emails or texts asking for too much information. Presumably, packages already have your address on them. If you missed a delivery, or USPS has trouble delivering a package, they might ask you to choose a new delivery time. They will not ask for your address, credit card number, or other sensitive information.
    • You’re asked to pay for something extra. USPS does not charge a fee for redeliveries. Any tracking number links that take you to a portal where you’re asked for bank account or credit card information are fake.
    • You bought heavily discounted items. Scammers create fake e-commerce stores with disproportionately discounted items.  If you don’t get a receipt, or you receive an email address with a non-traceable tracking number, it’s part of a scam.
    • You never received your delivery. If it’s been over a month and you still haven’t received your package, look up the tracking number on the USPS website. You've been scammed if the tracking number doesn’t show up or isn’t valid. Tracking links may also take you to suspicious sites — another indicator of a fake USPS tracking number. 

    If you believe you’ve been targeted by a phishing scheme, report the incident to USPS. And if you accidentally provided any information, file a report with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at IdentityTheft.gov.

    Don’t Fall for Fake USPS Tracking Numbers

    Even though fake USPS tracking numbers are on the rise, there are a few ways to safeguard your USPS deliveries and avoid falling for scams.

    Shop with legitimate online stores

    • When online shopping, try to find the store’s contact information and address. Scan the website footer or the Contact Us tab in the top navigation. Consider a lack of contact information a red flag.
    • Next, check for BBB reviews. Angry customers may have already reported unlawful activity.
    • Lastly, take a hard look at the store's prices. If they seem too good to be true, they probably are. If other comparable brands charge double or triple the price, be wary of the vendor.

    Verify tracking numbers right after purchases

    • After you make a purchase, you should receive an email containing a tracking number for your items. Try plugging that tracking number into the USPS website right away.
    • Even though your package may not be prepared yet, there should be a message such as, “Created label” to indicate that your order was received and is being shipped.

    Use the USPS Informed Delivery service

    • This service allows you to preview your mail and manage deliveries. USPS Informed Delivery notifies you when your mail is about to arrive and shows images of what your mail looks like.
    • Knowing what’s coming will help you pay more attention to USPS-related alerts and identify any fraudulent USPS text scams early.

    Sign up for USPS Electronic Signature Online®

    • Consider the USPS Electronic Signature service as an added layer of security. When you sign up for this service, you’re allowed to electronically sign for certain types of mail.
    • Carriers and clerks cannot deliver insured items over $500 without your physical signature.

    Block spam texts

    • If you receive a text that seems like a scam, delete and block it immediately. You should also update your phone software regularly to have the most up-to-date spam protection.

    Add detailed delivery instructions

    • With USPS Delivery Instructions, you can specify where shipments should be delivered. Doing this upfront ensures that packages are left at your designated location. Any unexpected deliveries, texts, or emails should put you on high alert.

    Report any missing mail

    • If you ordered something that never arrived, fill out a Missing Mail request. USPS will send you a confirmation email and periodic updates about their search.
    • USPS will also notify you if a package is illegitimate or never existed, so you can file insurance claims if necessary.

    Flag USPS texts scams

    • Informing the authorities of a scam helps protect yourself and others. The USPS team will try to find and quash the source of the texts or fake tracking numbers. You can access USPS security FAQs here or send an email to spam@uspis.gov.

    Smishing Works Only If You Respond

    USPS text message scams and fake USPS tracking numbers are hounding unsuspecting buyers across the country who are losing time, money, privacy, and a sense of security in the process.

    The good news is that you can evade scams by knowing how they work. Engage with legitimate online stores, sign up for USPS services, and watch out for telltale signs of fraud. 

    USPS does not send unsolicited emails or text messages about deliveries. They certainly don’t request personal data or payments to release packages.

    Customers need to register online or initiate a text message with USPS for tracking updates. Responses from the Postal Service will also never contain URLs

    But USPS isn’t the only target of personal identity scams. New attack vectors are constantly popping up, and you must be prepared. Curious about how you can protect your personal information and identity? 

    Consider Aura’s #1-rated digital security solution. Aura monitors your bank, credit, and investment accounts for signs of fraud up to 4x faster than other providers. When suspicious activity is detected, Aura notifies you in near-real time.

     All Aura plans include a suite of intelligent, easy-to-use safety tools including antivirus software, a virtual private network (VPN), and password manager. Plus, every adult member on your plan is protected by a $1,000,000 identity theft insurance policy.

    Shop, browse, connect, and work online safely. Try Aura free for 14 days.→

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    1. Financial identity theft and fraud
    2. Medical identity theft
    3. Child identity theft
    4. Elder fraud and estate identity theft
    5. “Friendly” or familial identity theft
    6. Employment identity theft
    7. Criminal identity theft
    8. Tax identity theft
    9. Unemployment and government benefits identity theft
    10. Synthetic identity theft
    11. Identity cloning
    12. Account takeovers (social media, email, etc.)
    13. Social Security number identity theft
    14. Biometric ID theft
    15. Crypto account takeovers