Text messaging is a popular and ever-growing way to communicate. That’s why it’s not surprising text scams are on the rise.
According to a recent report, criminals sent 225.7 billion spam texts in 2022, a 157% increase from 2021.
What do spam texts look like? We’ve put together some telltale warning signs to help you recognize fraudulent text messages.
Many of us rely on text messaging for updates from our financial institution, pharmacy, and other trusted sources. But amidst all the familiar exchanges, you may see texts from unknown senders. Unfortunately, these mystery messages could be from scammers who are out to solicit payments, steal your personal information, or gain access to your bank account. According to a recent report, criminals sent 225.7 billion spam texts in 2022, a 157% increase from 2021.1
"Older adults are attractive targets for text-based scams,” says Genevieve Waterman, Director of Economic & Financial Security at NCOA. “Not only do scammers assume older people have healthy retirement savings; they know many live alone, with no one looking over their shoulder.”
Learning how to identify text message scams can help you spot red flags and steer clear of trouble.
What are common text scams?
Text message scams may be automated (“robotexts”) or they may be from a real person. There are two main types to be aware of:
Malicious links: A malicious link text scam is when a message containing a link is sent to your phone. The text message is often “urgent,” telling you why you should click on the link right now:
You’ve won a (fantastic) prize and you need to redeem it.
You qualify for a no-interest credit card and must claim the offer.
You need to confirm suspicious activity on your account.
You’re invited to complete a survey about a recent experience.
You must confirm a package being delivered to your house.
When you click on the link, it may download malware (malicious software) to your phone. This potentially allows the scammer remote access to your phone, where they can send themselves money using a payment app already installed there. Clicking on the text message link may also take you to a spoofed website where you’ll be asked for personal details and/or a payment.
One-time password: A one-time password text message scam involves a phone call from someone pretending to be from a familiar organization. They may claim to be from your bank, your utility company, or even a government agency. The person or entity that's scamming you may say there’s a problem with your account—like an overdue bill payment—and then walks you through a process to “fix” the issue. They explain the process requires dual authentication, which is when a one-time passcode is sent to your phone.
Once you give the scammer that code, they can take control of your account and access any information in that account. If they gain access to a digital payment platform you use regularly, like Zelle, Venmo, or PayPal, they can even complete payments without your permission. Digital payment platforms don't always provide the same protections as credit cards. In some cases, it may be difficult to get a refund.
What do text scams look like?
Wondering how to identify a fake text message? Scammers generally offer you something you want to get a quick, reactive click on their link.
Text scam warnings signs to look out for:
- A message announces you’ve won a major prize (monetary or other), but you don’t recall ever entering a contest or sweepstakes.
Example: “Congratulations - you're a winner! Go to bit.ly/eFgHiJK to claim your $500 Walmart gift card.”
- You’re asked for highly sensitive personal information to unlock an offer or avoid a penalty. The scammer may request your:
- Bank account number
- PIN number
- Credit card number
- Annual income
- Social Security number
Example 1: “Acme Bank is closing your account due to suspicious activity. To keep your account active, please confirm your PIN at bit.ly/acmebank123.”
Example 2: “You have an outstanding tax refund of $2,560. Follow these instructions to claim your refund at: https://gov.taxrefunds.irs.”
- The message is friendly and casual, as if it’s from someone who knows you—but you don’t recognize the number or name (if they provide one).
Example: “Hi, it’s been awhile, how are you doing? Let’s get together this weekend. Visit my profile at bit.ly/aBcWxYZ.”
Other text message red flags include:
- The text message contains many misspellings, bad grammar, or both.
- The phone number of the sender is unusually long.
- The message contained in the text is not relevant to you at all.
“Sometimes scammers will make a guess about personal details to make the text seem like it’s meant for you, when in reality it could still be a scam," said Soo-Lynn Getz, Director of Fraud Prevention at Zelle. "Even if a text mentions accurate details like your email address, popular services you have an account for, or the status of a package delivery, it’s important to verify the claim through a trusted website or phone number. When in doubt, avoid clicking any links sent via text."
How do I protect myself from text scams?
To help protect yourself from text message scams, use discretion when opening text messages. Should you receive an unexpected or unsolicited text, do NOT reply or click on any links in the message. “This is really the biggest thing to remember,” NCOA's Waterman said.
Don't visit links, and don’t respond to the text in any way—even if you’re curious. It can save you a world of trouble,” Waterman said.
The “don’t click” rule applies even if you recognize the name of the sender (your bank, for example) and think the text message may be real. If that’s the case, contact the organization separately using contact information from their official website or mail correspondence.
More ways to help protect yourself from text message scams
- Don't share passcodes: If a one-time passcode or verification code is sent to your phone, don't share it with anyone. This can give a scammer immediate access to your account.
- Filter and block spam texts from your phone: Your device may have an option to filter/ block spam texts or texts from unknown senders. Check your phone’s manual to see what tools it offers.
- Block spam messages via your wireless provider: The company that provides your phone service may have an option that lets you block suspicious phone numbers. Check their website to learn more.
How do I report scam texts?
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), there are several ways to report unwanted and questionable text messages:
- Copy the message and text it to 7726 (SPAM). This can help your wireless provider identify and block similar messages from users.
- Report suspicious texts within your text messaging app. This can be done on both Android and iOS devices.
- Report scam texts directly to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
Once you’ve blocked and/or reported suspicious text message senders, it’s ok to delete the original text from your device.
For more information on preventing scams, visit our Avoiding Scams and Fraud for Older Adults resource library.
This content on payment scams was developed in partnership with Zelle®. Zelle® and the Zelle® related marks are property of Early Warning Services, LLC.
1. The Robokiller phone scam report 2022 insights & analysis. Robokiller. Found on the internet at https://www.robokiller.com/robokiller-2022-phone-scam-report#:~:text=Robotexts%20are%20far%20and%20away%20the%20leading%20scam%20threat,-If%20there's%20one&text=In%202022%2C%20fraudsters%20sent%20an,2021's%20then%2Drecord%2087.8%20billion.