How To Identify a Fake Text Message Scam [With Examples]

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Jory MacKay

Cybersecurity Writer and Editor

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    Did You Just Receive a Strange Text?

    When Alyssa Beckwith received a fraud alert text from Wells Fargo about a suspicious $240 ATM withdrawal, she immediately called the number in the message [*]. 

    As a former victim of identity theft, Alyssa knew she had to act quickly to stop scammers. So she didn’t hesitate when a robotic voice asked her to “verify” her identity by entering her credit card number, Social Security number (SSN), and birthday. 

    It was only after the call immediately disconnected that she realized what had really happened — she had been caught by a text message scam. 

    Last year, there was a record 58% increase in spam text messages — with scammers sending over 87 billion texts and fleecing their victims out of more than $10 billion [*].

    But while some fake text messages are easy to spot, fraudsters are becoming more sophisticated with their scams. If you’re at all suspicious about a text message you just received, read this guide before you respond, click on any links, or take action. 

    Example: A Fake Netflix Text Message That Almost Worked

    A fake Netflix text message that uses urgency to trick users into clicking a link.
    A fake Netflix text message that uses urgency to trick users into clicking a link.

    Though difficult to initially spot, the text above contains several signs of a scam:

    • It uses a realistic yet random phone number. Scammers know you probably don’t know Netflix’s phone number by heart, but that you’re also unlikely to look it up before responding to a text. 
    • It claims to be from a company you know and trust. Scammers will often claim to be from your bank, a service you use, or a government agency like the FBI or IRS to build trust.
    • It creates a sense of urgency to get you to act. Scam text messages almost always use a form of social engineering to bypass your defenses. They’ll claim your account numbers have been compromised or that you’re going to be charged a huge fee if you don’t respond.
    • It includes a link that is either shortened or scrambled. The goal of any scam text is to get you to click on a link or call a number. These links will always be shortened to avoid suspicion. But if you click on them, you could either download malware onto your device or end up on a phishing website that steals your sensitive information.

    Note: Netflix (and any other company) will never text you to update your membership, personal information, or billing information via text or third-party websites.

    Take action: If you think your personal information could be in the wrong hands, try Aura’s identity theft protection free for 14 days to secure your identity.

    How To Identify a Fake Text Message In 5 Seconds

    Similar to scam emails that are known as "phishing,” scam text messages are called “smishing.” The end goal of both scams is the same: trick victims into giving up money or sensitive information that can be used for identity theft and fraud. 

    While many users are aware of the dangers of responding to suspicious emails, they often let their guards down with text messages. As a result, 21% of all fraud cases start with a text message, with most victims losing an average of $900, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) [*].

    The number of spam text messages has surged in the past year. Source: RoboKiller.
    The number of spam text messages has surged in the past year. Source: RoboKiller.

    Here are the red flags you should look out for whenever you receive a strange text or message on a messaging app such as Telegram or Whatsapp:

    • The text message is unsolicited (scammers will always contact you out of the blue).
    • The text sender has a long phone number (10 or 11 digits).
    • The phone number is “spoofed” (i.e., it looks like it’s coming from someone you know or trust).
    • The text includes a link that is most likely shortened or scrambled.
    • It is written with a sense of urgency (such as claiming you owe money to the IRS or that you’ve been charged a subscription payment you never signed up for).
    • The text contains strange grammar or spelling mistakes.
    • It promises a reward or prize if you respond or click a link.
    • The text claims to be from a company you use but weren’t expecting to hear from. 
    • It claims to be from a colleague, family member, or friend but doesn’t sound like them.
    • The sender asks you to call them back.
    • The text contains requests for refunds for supposed overcharged services.

    Always be cautious if you receive a message showing one or more of these warning signs. And while you might be curious to know who is sending you these messages, resist the urge to engage with them to find out.

    Related: Can Someone Hack Your Phone With Just Your Phone Number?

    The 10 Trickiest Text Scams To Avoid

    1. Texts that come from your own number
    2. Fake delivery notification texts
    3. “Suspicious log-in attempt” scam text messages
    4. Fake fraud alerts from your bank 
    5. Text messages claiming to be from your boss or colleagues
    6. COVID-19 vaccine surveys and other scam texts
    7. Lottery, sweepstakes, and giveaway texts
    8. Texts with bills or invoices you don’t recognize
    9. “Family emergency” scam text messages
    10. Refund and overpayment scam texts

    Remember: In all cases, you should delete the scam text messages and then block the sender's phone number on your phone. Never click on links, respond to messages (even with “STOP” or “REMOVE”), or call the phone number provided. 

    If you think the text message may be legitimate, contact the company directly using the phone number or contact information on their website. Not what’s provided in a text message. 

    1. Texts that come from your own number

    You might easily detect spam texts from scammers. But what about receiving a spam text from yourself?

    In late March of this year, The Verge’s editor, Chris Welch, reported receiving a spam text on his smartphone about his carrier bill [*]. The text read, “Your bill is paid for March,” followed by a phony link masked under the words: “Thanks, here’s a little gift for you.”

    Fake text example about a free reward
    Scammers will often use the same text message to target thousands of victims.

    Normally, Chris would delete messages like this. But there was something different about this one — it was coming from his own number. 

    How can this happen? Scammers use online tools to manipulate phone networks and make their text messages look like they’re coming from different sources — even your own number. 

    The goal is to get you to drop your defenses and accidentally click on the link. But if you do, you’ll most likely end up on a phishing site that will ask for your credit card information to “receive” the gift.

    The “own phone number” scam text is relatively new and on the rise. Several Verizon customers on Twitter reported receiving the exact message from their own numbers [*].

    How to spot the scam:

    • You receive a text from yourself about a bill or reward.
    • The text includes a link that you need to click in order to receive your reward.

    2. Fake delivery notification texts

    Since the start of the pandemic, more people are shopping online. And so receiving texts about a package delivery is something you might take for granted — and scammers take advantage of that.

    In the past year, package delivery scams were responsible for over 26% of all spam texts [*]. Scammers pose as Amazon, FedEx, or USPS via texts, and ask users for personal information about their package or order. 

    For example, using the FedEx delivery SMS scam, fraudsters send a text that contains a link to “set your delivery preferences.”

    Example of a fake delivery notification text scam
    Fake delivery notification scam texts have ballooned during the pandemic.

    But if you click on the link, it will take you to a site that looks like it’s from the delivery service. However, you’ll be asked to provide your personal information or pay to “switch” your delivery times.  

    How to spot the scam:

    • You are asked for money in return for the delivery of a package. 
    • You’re taken to a website that asks for personal or financial information to “verify” your identity.
    • The sender’s website address is spoofed to look like it’s from a legitimate company (for example, “fedx.com” instead of “FedEx.com,” or “amaz0n.com” instead of “Amazon.com.”)

    Related: The Latest UPS Text Scams To Watch Out For

    3. “Suspicious log-in attempt” scam text messages

    If you get an SMS notification about a suspicious login attempt on one of your accounts, you’ll normally want to act quickly. But scammers use your fear of getting hacked to their advantage. 

    Fake suspicious log-in attempt text messages are designed to get you to click on a link and “update” your password. But in reality, scammers are sending you to a phishing site that will steal your old password and lock you out of your account. 

    Example of a suspicious log-in attempt text scam
    Suspicious login attempts are an easy target for text scammers. Source: Cyren.

    How to spot the scam:

    • The message contains poor grammar and spelling mistakes. Major companies won’t send you text messages with basic errors like this. 
    • The link is shortened or scrambled to mask where it’s really taking you 
    • If you click on the link, the site shows signs of a phishing scam (for example, a spoofed or different domain address and strange designs).

    Pro tip: Learn how to tell if someone is scamming you online. Fraudsters create phishing websites that look real. But if you know the warning signs, you’ll be able to keep your sensitive data secure. 

    4. Fake fraud alerts from your bank 

    When Cynthia Marin received a fraud alert text from Wells Fargo asking if she approved a $3500 transaction via Zelle (a banking app) — which quickly denied the charge [*]. 

    She also didn’t think twice when a spoofed Wells Fargo phone number called her to walk her through the process of transferring the stolen money back to “her” account. The only problem was that it was all part of a smishing scam.

    Example of a fake fraud alert text scam
    Scam texts often use payment services like Zelle and Venmo. Source: ABC7 News.

    In reality, scammers were tricking her into transferring her money to them. Unfortunately, she lost $1700 before finally realizing it was a trick. 

    Scammers use fraud alerts to prey on your emotions. You may think that you’re protecting your bank account from fraudulent transactions. When in reality, you’re giving scammers all the information they need to break in and steal your money.

    How to spot the scam:

    • You receive a message claiming to be from your bank and asking for personal or banking information.
    • You get a suspicious fraud alert for an “unverified transaction.”
    • The fraud alert comes from a phone number or shortcode that’s different from your bank’s number. (Be sure to save your bank’s text message short code so you can quickly identify if the message is coming from the real one.)
    • You are requested to transfer money in exchange for stopping fraud on your account.

    Related: How To Protect Yourself Against Financial Fraud

    Take action: Scammers can take out loans in your name or empty your bank account with your stolen information. Try an identity theft protection service to monitor your finances and receive fraud alerts.

    5. Text messages claiming to be from your boss or colleagues

    The new “boss scam is both an email and text scam. Scammers use LinkedIn to find the names of your boss or supervisor and then spoof text messages to look like they’re coming from them. Then, they’ll make up a work emergency and request that you send them money or gift cards. 

    Example of a "boss scam" text message scam
     The boss scam uses your employer’s real name to trick you. Source: NY Attorney General.

    In another version of this scam, the fraudsters will claim to be on a work trip or in a meeting and ask you to change payment details or give them access to business accounts. 

    According to New York State Attorney General, scammers spoof the employer’s real name and phone number, making it seem legitimate [*]. They’ll then use purported work emergencies to request employee buy gift cards and send it to them — with the promise of reimbursement. 

    How to spot the scam:

    • You receive a text from your boss requesting gift cards for personal or work-related  payment. Be especially cautious if you don’t normally contact your boss or colleagues over text. 
    • Your “boss” requests that you not reach out  via phone call — but only by text (usually because they’re “in a meeting.”)
    • The sender uses your full name as it is formatted on LinkedIn or other sites.

    Pro tip: Beware of anyone asking for gift cards. A December 2021 report from the FTC found that gift cards are the most preferred form of payment for scammers. In the first nine months of 2021, victims reported losing $148 million to gift card scams [*]. 

    6. COVID-19 vaccine surveys and other scam texts

    Scammers are using the COVID-19 pandemic to fuel an entirely new wave of health-related scams. In one common scam, fraudsters send texts asking people to take fake COVID-19 vaccine surveys with the promise of “free rewards” if they provide their personal information. 

    Here are some other common Covid scams you’re likely to receive via text message:

    • Texts claiming to offer free subscriptions (like Netflix) due to the pandemic.
    • Texts offering “special” government benefits or stimulus checks. 
    • Texts that start with “IRS COVID-19 news” [*].
    • Texts claiming to be from the "FCC Financial Care Center" and offering pandemic relief.
    • Texts claiming to be from FEMA offering assistance with the COVID-19 Funeral Assistance Program.

    How to spot the scam

    • You are offered a reward in exchange for personal information.
    • You are requested to pay the shipping fee for a purported prize. 
    • You receive texts containing suspicious links from unverified health sources.

    💡 Related: Beware of These 7 Wells Fargo Scam Texts

    7. Lottery, sweepstakes, and giveaway texts

    A text message saying that you won a lottery or giveaway would lighten up anyone’s day. But scammers know the allure of a free prize is often all it takes to get you to click on a link. 

    Some of the more common scams claim to be from companies you know and trust, like Walmart, Amazon, or Apple. These scam texts claim that you were randomly chosen based on a recent purchase or even your IP address. 

    Fake Apple giveaway text scam
    Scammers pose as companies like Apple to trick you into clicking dangerous links.

    Since there’s no additional information in the text, customers are tricked into clicking on the link and entering their personal information to claim the reward. But again, if you click, you’ll either accidentally infect your device with malware or be taken to a phishing site. 

    How to spot the scam:

    • You’re offered a prize for a giveaway you never entered or from a company you haven’t engaged with recently. 
    • The sender uses a tone that reflects a sense of urgency.
    • The link takes you to a spoofed or different domain than you expected. For example, “Walmrat.com” instead of “Walmart.com.”

    8. Texts with bills or invoices you don’t recognize

    It’s not uncommon to receive texts from your service provider about a processed, pending, or upcoming invoice. But without proper verification, how can you be sure this text is legitimate?

    Fake payment didn't go through text scam example
    Innocent requests for updating your account information could lead to financial fraud.

    Fake invoice text scams involve scammers sending fake invoices to customers and requesting payment for goods or services. 

    For example, you might get a text telling you that the due date for the payment of your cellphone bill has passed. You’re informed that failure to pay in the next week will result in the disconnection of your line.

    Meanwhile, you’ve paid your cellphone bill. But due to the threat of line disconnection, you might not double-check with your carrier provider and, instead, end up sending money to scammers.

    How to spot the scam:

    • You are asked to process a bill payment by clicking on a suspicious link in the text. 
    • The text requests that you call an unknown number to process your bill.
    • You click on a link and are taken to a strange or unfamiliar payment processing website.

    Pro tip: Get protection against phishing sites. Aura’s antivirus software can detect if you’re visiting a fake website and warn you before you enter your sensitive information.

    9. “Family emergency” scam text messages

    Family emergency scams prey on your willingness to assist family members in need of help. These scams often follow three patterns:

    1. The fake family member text scam. A scammer will message you pretending to be a family member who needs urgent help due to a medical or legal emergency. They’ll ask you to wire them money or send a Venmo or Cash App transfer to help. They’ll also ask you not to call them.
    2. The fake hospital/police text scam. In this version, the scammer will text you claiming to be from the hospital or the police. They’ll claim a relative is in danger and ask you for money or to phone them (so they can push the scam further). 
    3. The fake kidnapper text scam. Even worse, a scammer might claim that they’ve kidnapped or hurt one of your relatives and will only release them if you send money. Sadly, most victims of this type of scam are elderly such as parents or grandparents.

    How to spot the scam:

    • The purported family member doesn’t want you contacting them.
    • Payment is required through unconventional methods, such as gift cards. 
    • You are asked to follow a link to reach out to them. 
    • The text incites a sense of urgency or has a threatening tone. 

    Related: The 14 Cash App Scams You Didn't Know About (Until Now)

    10. Refund and overpayment scam texts

    With the current economic situation, scammers know that you’ll be interested in any refund or “free money.”

    Refund and overpayment scams claim you’re owed money from a company or service. But in reality, they’re just trying to get you to click on a phishing link that will ask you to “confirm” your personal details like email addresses and bank accounts. 

    Fake refund text scam
    Refund scam texts will create a sense of urgency to get you to click on their links.

    How to spot the scam:

    • The text contains an unrequested or unexpected “refund.” 
    • There’s a link redirecting you to a phony or unrecognized website.
    • You don’t recognize the amount, company, or reason why you would be getting a refund.

    What Happens If You Open or Respond to a Fake Text Message?

    The good news is that scammers can't get very far with their scams if all you did was open a fake text message. Unfortunately, it’s a different story if you respond, click a link, or provide them with any financial or personal information. 

    What can happen if you respond to text message scams or click on links?

    • You could get pulled into a social engineering attack. Once scammers have you engaged or on the phone, they can continue their scam and convince you to send them money or information that could lead to identity theft.
    • Scammers will continue to contact you. Even responding “STOP” will show scammers you’re willing to engage with them, so they’ll continue to send you scam texts. 
    • You could download malware onto your phone. This allows scammers to hack your phone, steal your sensitive information, or even spy on what you type (including passwords). 

    Related: How To Stop Spam Texts (on Android and iPhone)

    Did You Click on a Text Scam Link? Do This Right Away!

    Everyone makes mistakes. And with so many scammers now spoofing phone numbers to make texts seem legitimate, anyone could accidentally click on a link in a scam text. 

    If you clicked on a text scam link, don’t panic. Instead, follow these steps: 

    1. Disconnect from your Wi-Fi or mobile network. Once you click on a link in a spam text, scammers can send data from your mobile device. To avoid this, turn off your mobile or Wi-Fi network immediately. 
    2. Back up your sensitive files. In cases of a data breach or loss, keep copies of all your photos, documents, videos, and other sensitive files. 
    3. Scan your device for malware or viruses. Scammers can manipulate links to download malicious files on your device. You can detect and prevent this by scanning your device with antivirus software. 
    4. Change your passwords immediately. The less complicated your passwords are, the easier it is for hackers to compromise your account. Once you notice your account has been compromised, change your password as soon as possible. 
    5. Secure your online accounts with MFA (Multi-Factor Authentication). Passwords aren’t enough. Setting up MFA adds layers of security to your accounts. Use 2FA (two-factor authentication) and a password manager on all your accounts. 
    Aura's password manager
    Aura's password manager keeps all of your account logins secure.
    1. Call your bank. If you’re a victim of a bank fraud alert, chances are that you’ve revealed your financial information to scammers. Call your bank immediately to report the situation, and see if they can put a hold on all transactions on your account.
    2. Scan the Dark Web for your information. Having your information available on the Dark Web puts you in the crosshairs of scammers. Following a link from a spam text and providing your driver’s license opens you to financial fraud and identity theft. To check what information hackers have access to, use a free Dark Web scanner.
    3. Monitor your phone bills. If hackers get access to your phone bill, they can trick you by using a “late payment notice” to make you pay a fake bill. You can avoid this by keeping your phone bill private at all times.
    4. Report the scam. If you receive a smishing text, forward it to SPAM (7726). You can also report scams to the FTC at https://reportfraud.ftc.gov/
    5. Consider signing up for identity theft protection. Simply clicking on a link in a spam text can infect your mobile device and compromise your identity. But signing up for identity theft protection keeps your devices safe from scammers and hackers.

    How To Protect Yourself From Text Scammers and Hackers

    Text scamming is everywhere and is becoming difficult to avoid. 

    In April of this year, scammers sent over 11.36 billion spam texts, with the average person receiving nearly 41 spam texts per month [*]. That’s roughly 10 fake text messages per week. 

    The threat is real, and your best chance against it is to protect yourself. Here’s how you can do that: 

    1. Keep your phone number private. Avoid sharing your phone number on social media or with strangers. 
    2. Don’t respond to suspicious texts. Do not even answer with “NO” or “STOP.” Doing so only lets scammers know your phone number is active, and they’ll keep spamming you. 
    3. Never click on links in text messages. Instead, go directly to a company’s website.
    4. Check websites for signs of a scam. Make sure you’re on a legitimate domain and not a spoofed one. For example, https://amazon.com (legitimate) vs. http://amaz0n.com (spoofed). 
    5. Remove your information from data broker lists. Data brokers collect and sell your information to advertisers and telemarketers — exposing you to unwanted ads and scams. Aura will send a request on your behalf to remove your data from brokers so that you can take control of your privacy.
    6. Filter unknown messages on your mobile phone. 
    • On iPhone: Go to Settings > Messages > then scroll down to Message Filtering > Toggle on “Filter Unknown Senders.”
    How to block unknown senders on iOS
    • On Android: Go to Messages > then navigate to Settings > Click on Spam Protection and enable it. 
    How to enable spam protection on Android
    1. Delete scam text messages. Avoid keeping the content of a scam text on your mobile device. If you plan to use it as evidence when making a report, take a screenshot; then delete the message. 
    2. Don’t blindly trust personalized texts. An out-of-the-blue text from a friend needing help and requesting gift cards (or other shady forms of payment) is likely a scam. Reach out directly to the friend first to confirm before deciding to help.
    3. Always call back companies using their official numbers. Do not use the number that you were texted from. Instead, use their official contact channels to confirm any information you received.
    Take action: Aura’s $1,000,000 identity theft insurance covers lost wages, phone bills, and other expenses due to identity theft. Try Aura free for 14 days and see if it’s right for you.

    The Bottom Line: Avoid Fake Text Message Scams

    Scammers send millions of scam text messages every single month. Don’t get caught in their schemes. Instead, slow down, question any unsolicited text, and reach out to companies through the proper channels. 

    For even more protection against scammers and fraudsters, sign up for identity theft protection and credit monitoring. It’s bad enough losing money to text scams. But it’s worse finding out that your identity has also been stolen.

    Aura not only safeguards your devices from malicious phishing websites, spam texts, and robocalls, but also constantly monitors your credit file, online accounts, and sensitive information for signs of fraud.

    And if the worst should happen, you’re covered by a $1,000,000 insurance policy for eligible losses due to identity theft. 

    Don’t let scammers outsmart you. 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