The text message created an instant surge of panic.
“Freemsg: Chase, Did you attempt wire transfer amount of $7500. Reply Y if recognized, Or NO to stop fraud.”
For Ohio resident Kelli Hinton, this was the beginning of a hard-to-detect scam in which a man posing as a Chase Bank fraud investigator ended up clearing two of her bank accounts of $15,000.
And Hinton is hardly alone. Her nightmare is part of a huge surge in sophisticated text message-based scams that now affect hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. Sometimes called “smishing”, short for SMS phishing, the scams trick mobile phone users out of their money using messages purporting to be from a familiar person or company that can be almost impossible to tell from the real thing.
While phishing texts have been around for years, data shows they are on the rise. In 2022 US phone users got 157bn robotexts , or more than 440 a person – an 80% increase from 2021, according to the company Robokiller, which offers a scam-blocking service for cell phones. And last year, more than 321,000 Americans reported having fallen for a phone-based smishing scam, with total losses of over $326m, according to data from the US Federal Trade Commission.
The problem has become so bad that last month the federal government demanded that mobile phone companies start blocking spam texts, in what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) described as its first of several planned steps to combat the rampant phone fraud.
Scammers use an unending variety of creative approaches to try to trick people out of their money.
Some pretend to offer jobs, only to ensnare people into transferring money out of their bank accounts for job supplies. Others pretend to be contacting the wrong person in the hopes of striking up a conversation, which may then lead to long exchanges that get the phone user to open their wallet. Another common scam involves gleaning the name of a person’s boss from a directory or website, then impersonating that boss and asking for a favor that involves purchasing gift cards. The scammer then asks for photos of the back of the gift cards, saying they’re needed for reimbursement. This, in turn, allows the thieves to cash the cards and make off with the funds.
Increasing levels of scam
Many scam texts pretend to be from a familiar company, like Amazon, UPS or a popular bank.
In Hinton’s case, the scam started with a text message on 3 January, claiming to check whether she had authorized $7,500 being wired out of her account. She hadn’t even had time to respond, before a polite man, identifying himself as “Simon from Chase fraud investigation”, called from a phone number that appeared to exactly match the 800 number on the back of her bank card.
He told her that a scammer had accessed her account and she needed to take prompt action to stop the money being transferred out. Meanwhile, more texts were arriving, announcing more unauthorized wire transfers coming from her account.
The professional-sounding scammer kept her on the phone for over an hour and, at one point, told her she needed to reset her bank credentials and password in order to stop the fraud. This reset of her password apparently allowed the scammers to authorize wire transfers out of her account.
Hinton realized something was amiss when the caller suddenly hung up and she called the bank immediately. But she was transferred from one office to another, she said. In the meantime, the money was gone.
“I was seven months pregnant at this time and I felt like I was ready to have a stroke,” said Hinton. “That was our money that we were saving for our baby.”
Stefan Koester, a policy analyst at a Washington DC technology thinktank, was nearly fooled by a different sort of grift. In January, he got a text claiming to be from the US Postal Service, which said there was an issue with a package due to be delivered to him.
When he clicked the link in the text, Koester said it took him to a website with exactly the same design as the USPS homepage. Koester said he was in a rush that day so didn’t think too much about it and began entering his address information to correct the mailing.
It wasn’t until the prompts asked him to put in his credit card number to pay a $3 fee to change his address that Koester stopped in his tracks.
“The level of scams I get is increasing everyday,” said Koester, in a tweet warning others of the scam. “This one almost got me.”
Text scams can be even harder to avoid than those that come via phone call or email, consumer advocates say, because it’s a communication style with more urgency and one we’re more inclined to trust, since typically people only use texts to communicate with someone they know well.
“People react more to texts than to emails, because they’re so immediate,” said Melanie McGovern, director of public relations for the Better Business Bureau, which tracks thousands of scams annually through its Scam Tracker website. “Scammers know that text messages are opened 95% of the time.”
The scammers, who may be anywhere in the world, use automated systems to blast the texts out to thousands of phone numbers, often at random, experts said. But all it takes is for one or two people to respond for that scammer to pilfer thousands of dollars a day. And few are ever caught.
“People really do need to know what’s happening,” said Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support for the AARP, which gets hundreds of reports of fraud from older Americans every day, who can be particularly vulnerable. “If you get anything asking for a gift card or an exchange of cryptocurrency, stop! It’s a scam,” she advised. “If they want a social security or credit card number or bank account password, you should stop.”
Mounting calls for action
With scams on the rise and criminals acting with seeming impunity, calls for action are mounting.
Some, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, have urged banks to make it more difficult for scammers to drain accounts, using electronic transfer systems, including Zelle. The federal government is also under pressure; the new rule rolled out by the FCC in March will require mobile phone companies to block certain texts before they ever reach consumers and more regulation could be on the way.
“There are more than 362,000 robotexts being sent a minute in America,” said Raja Krishnamoorthi, a congressman of Illinois, citing a 2022 report from Robokiller. Krishnamoorthi has introduced federal legislation that explicitly makes it illegal to use automated telephone equipment to barrage consumers with texts, which would give the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stronger enforcement mechanisms to crack down on scammers.
Additional bank protections might have helped Hinton, who said she reported the wire fraud scam that drained her Chase bank accounts just minutes after it happened, while the funds still appeared to be in her accounts, but was unable to get the bank to stop the transfers.
Reports from the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker website, showed that numerous other Chase customers reported being tricked by the same scam around the beginning of the year.
Hinton said she has now talked to the bank dozens of times, filed police and FBI reports and hired a lawyer. But so far she said has made little progress in recovering the money.
Paul Lussier, a Chase spokesman, called the situation Hinton faced “heartbreaking”. He said the bank is working to educate customers about scams and has added safeguards such as requiring customers to enter a one-time password sent to their phones before adding new wire transfer payees to their accounts. But, he said, if a customer gives a scammer their passwords or account access, the bank does not reimburse them for the losses.
“There are a lot of things we do on the back end to make it harder for scammers to succeed,” he said. “However, consumers also have to be eyes and ears.”
Hinton is still calling on financial institutions to do more to protect customers from having their money instantly swindled away by scammers who can so convincingly pose as bank employees.
“It’s like a black hole,” she said. “Once you’re in it it’s the most frustrating feeling. One guy is able to disguise himself as your bank. He can call from the number on the back of your bank card. And there’s nothing you can do.”
Clicking on a link, replying, or calling a number in a scam text can put you at risk of fraud, identity theft, and more. Here's how you can protect yourself after responding to a spam text.What happens if you open a text from a scammer? ›
So what happens if you open a scam text message? If you ever tap the link in that message, it'll very likely to try to install malware like a virus, spyware, or ransomware on your mobile device.Why am I getting spam texts all of a sudden? ›
Why am I getting spam text messages? Spam texts are both intrusive and pose a security threat. If you are getting spam texts, it's more than likely that whoever is sending you a spam text message is trying to get access to your personal information—bank accounts, passwords, social security number, online IDs and more.Why do I keep getting fake bank texts? ›
Smishing is a scam in which someone tries to get a user's personal or financial information via SMS or instant messaging (on social networks) by pretending to be an entity such as a bank or a credit card company. Messages can be fake notices about stolen passwords, deals or rewards that require a user to act fast.Can your number get hacked if you respond to a text? ›
In a word: no. You can't get hacked by simply answering your phone. However, you can fall prey to “vishing”—which is the verbal equivalent of “phishing.” Here, again, the intent is to create a sense of urgency, so you do not have time to sit back and think.Can someone hack into your phone by texting you? ›
One way that hackers are able to access your phone is to get you to click on infected links in text messages and emails. However, that's not always necessary. The very sophisticated hackers can use zero-click hacks that don't require you to do anything to activate the attack.Does it hurt to open a spam text? ›
Clicking on a link in a spam text could install malware onto your phone or take you to spoof sites that look real but are designed to steal your information. If your phone gets hacked, you may notice a decrease in your phone's battery life and performance.How do I stop spam text messages? ›
- Open your messaging app and find the text you want to block. Long-press the message and tap the Block icon. (In some apps, you may need to tap Options (three dots) > Block.)
- Tick Report spam, then tap OK.
Several mobile service providers allow you to block the sender by forwarding unwanted texts to 7726 (or "SPAM"). Check with your provider about options. Be careful about giving out your mobile phone number or any other personal information.Should I delete random text messages? ›
“A good general rule of thumb for a text from someone you don't know is to just ignore it or delete it,” says Stephen Cobb, senior security researcher at ESET, a company that makes antivirus and Internet security software for businesses and individuals worldwide.
Go to Settings > Messages, scroll down to Message Filtering, then turn on Filter Unknown Senders. When this setting is on, you can only see messages from people who aren't in your contacts when you go to Filters > Unknown Senders.How do I stop a scammer from using my debit card? ›
- Get Banking Alerts. ...
- Go Paperless. ...
- Don't Make Purchases With Your Debit Card. ...
- Stick to Bank ATMs. ...
- Destroy Old Debit Cards. ...
- Don't Keep All Your Money in One Place. ...
- Beware of Phishing Scams. ...
- Protect Your Computer and Mobile Devices.
Scam artists know this and sometimes target consumers with “phishing” scams via text message or SMS (short message service). Text message or SMS phishing—also called “smishing”—occurs when scam artists use deceptive text messages to lure consumers into providing their personal or financial information.How do I block bank messages? ›
- To opt for the fully blocked category, send text messages “START 0” to 1909.
- . To opt for the partially blocked category, send text messages “START” to 1909 as below. START 1 for receiving text messages relating to Banking/ insurance / financial products/credit cards.
Like phishing emails, smishing texts are social-engineering scams that aim to manipulate people into turning over sensitive data such as Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and account passwords or providing access to a business's computer system.Can hackers intercept your text messages? ›
But SMS is also one of the most non-secure messaging systems. With a little bit of technology and nefarious motives, hackers can intercept your messages easily. Without you knowing, cybercriminals can reroute your messages to other devices.What can a scammer do with your phone number? ›
Your phone number is an easy access point for scammers and identity thieves. Once they know your number, they can use it to send you phishing texts, trick you into installing malware and spyware, or use social engineering attacks to get you to hand over your personal identifying information (PII).What are signs that your phone is hacked? ›
- Your phone loses charge quickly. ...
- Your phone runs abnormally slowly. ...
- You notice strange activity on your other online accounts. ...
- You notice unfamiliar calls or texts in your logs.
Can hackers watch through your camera? If a hacker installs spyware on your phone then there is a good chance they will be able to access your camera and turn it on/off as they please. They may also be able to access any photos or videos you have previously taken.What can a person see when they hack your phone? ›
Hackers can also use keyloggers and other tracking software to capture your phone's keystrokes and record what you type, such as search queries, login credentials, passwords, credit card details, and other sensitive information.
If you receive any unwanted email, the best approach in almost every case is to delete it immediately. It is often clear from the Subject line that a message is junk, so you may not even need to open the message to read it.What if I accidentally clicked on a suspicious text link? ›
If you clicked on a phishing link that took you to a spoofed page entered personal information or credentials, then you'll need to change your passwords and contact your security team for further advice. Another danger is that attackers usually know whether or not you clicked on the link.How do you delete a text without opening it? ›
It is done by long-pressing the message and tapping the delete option that appears. This is a useful feature that allows users to quickly delete messages without having to open them first. Additionally, this feature also allows users to delete multiple messages at once, making it easier to clear out an inbox.What happens when you block a number and they text you? ›
When someone you've blocked tries to text you, you will not receive text messages from them. The blocked person also does not receive any notification that they're blocked.Why you should delete these text messages as soon as you get them? ›
“It will be able to do a whole lot of damage on your phone, everything from stealing your back accounts, your passwords and then it will spread via SMS to new numbers,” cyber security expert Darren Pauli told 7NEWS.Why am I getting so many spam texts on my Iphone? ›
This can be from the sale of personal data by companies who you've given your number; it can be from data leaks; and also can just come from spammers randomly generating numbers. It goes without saying that you should never tap on any links in suspect messages or provide any data those messages request.What do spam text messages look like? ›
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.Should I cancel my debit card if scammed? ›
My debit card has been used fraudulently
You must report the loss of your debit card, or any unauthorised payments, as soon as possible.
Fraudsters can get ahold of your card details in a few different ways—one of them being through an ATM card skimming device. Nefarious parties can also gain access to old bank statements or debit cards, or direct you to make a payment on a fraudulent website that collects your details.How do I safeguard my debit card? ›
- Sign Immediately. ...
- Memorize Your Pin. ...
- Protect your cards as if they were cash.
- Take your receipt and save it. ...
- Report lost or stolen card immediately. ...
- Keep an eye on your card when doing a transaction. ...
- Check your bank statement to assure the amounts charged are what your authorized.
To stop payment, you need to notify your bank at least three business days before the transaction is scheduled to be made and your bank may charge a fee. The notice to stop the transaction may be made orally or in writing. A bank can require written confirmation of an oral stop payment request.How do I block all transactions on my bank account? ›
In case of loss or any unauthorised transaction, customers can visit their nearest bank premises and seek bank officials' assistance to block a debit/credit card.Can a text message be used against you? ›
This means the party trying to admit the message into evidence must prove it is what they say it is. That is, a text message sent by the person they say sent it. If the prosecutor is trying to prove you committed a crime by showing a text you sent, the prosecutor must show that you actually sent it.What to do when you get a text from someone you don t know? ›
If you receive a text from someone you don't know, simply don't reply. It's the safest route. If you engage with a scammer, even briefly, they will mark your number as active and you could receive even more shady texts in the future. Block numbers that appear to come from scammers.Can text messages be traced after they are erased? ›
If you simply delete a text, they are still available. And there are common forensics tools used by both law enforcement and civil investigators to recover them.How do you stop someone from text messaging you? ›
- Open the Messages app .
- On the home screen, touch and hold the conversation that you want to block.
- Tap Block. OK.
Anyone, not just hackers, can use spyware
One popular app, mSpy, monitors text messages, calls, and social media interactions. The app can be installed remotely on an iPhone if you have the proper iCloud credentials. For Android phones, someone will need physical access to install it.
Don't “click” open links in unsolicited text messages. Clicking the link may infect your mobile device with a virus or malware designed to steal the personal or financial information stored on the device.Should you text back a number you dont know? ›
If you do get a message that might be suspicious, even ones that say you can text STOP to end the communications, the FCC says to not respond, and block any messages that come in, and the related phone numbers or emails. Additionally, FCC provides these tips to protect yourself and your private information.Should you open a text from someone you don't know? ›
BBB said these scammers potentially have technology to steal your phone contacts and continue to scam your friends too, so avoid even opening up the unknown text.