How to Identify a Fake Text Message
Published: Dec 14, 2022
Text messages are a powerful form of communication. They cut through all the noise and get straight to their recipient. But as with any good thing, they can be abused. To avoid some of the most common text message scams and SMS spoofing attempts, it’s important to know how to identify a fake text message.
Follow this guide to spot the signs of fake SMS messages and learn how to avoid and report them.
What Is a Fake Text Message?
A fake text message is any text message that’s intended to mislead the recipient or misrepresent who the sender is. One thing to understand is that what we call a fake SMS is still a real text message in the sense that it’s an SMS that was sent to your phone number. Where the fake nature of a text message lies is that the sender is either trying to impersonate a real organization or trying to con you into giving them personal or financial information.
By themselves, fake SMS messages can’t do harm. They aren’t a virus that will infect your phone just by being opened. The messages are sent with the hope that the recipient will complete an action, like opening a link or replying with the requested information—usually about your identity or financial info. And that’s where the threat is.
Never open a suspicious link or download an attachment, which can install harmful malware on certain mobile devices. And don’t reply with any personal information over a text.
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Who Sends False Text Messages?
False text messages are most often sent by scammers trying to get you to fraudulently pay for something or enter sensitive information like social security numbers into a seemingly real-looking webpage known as phishing. These attempts are designed to confuse you into thinking you are receiving a message from a legitimate source.
Scammers may try to impersonate a bank or company you may be a client of, or even pretend to be someone you know. Number spoofing, where you may receive a text message from a legitimate phone number, is possible. The sender ID will display the name of a bank or even their real number to reassure you into taking your guard down.
With the prevalence of SMS banking, these kinds of fake messages are becoming more common. You should always know that your bank—or any reputable company, for that matter—will never ask for any personal details through a text message.
And if you do receive a text from a bank requesting that you take some account action, don’t follow the link in the message. Instead, log in straight from the bank’s website. And when in doubt, get in touch with them yourself using the phone number or email address on their official webpage.
Are Spam and Fake SMS The Same Thing?
It’s important to differentiate between spam and scam. While receiving spam text messages may be annoying, they’re generally harmless and are trying to sell you a legitimate product or service, but maybe one you haven’t asked for. It’s generally easy to unsubscribe from them if you don’t wish to receive those advertisements.
Where text messages become dangerous is when there is an underlying scam designed to trick you into disclosing information that will lead to defrauding you or stealing your identity. The malicious intent of fake SMS is what differentiates them from the regular spam you may receive, even if they go hand in hand and employ similar tactics.
Generally speaking, any text message that promises you free gift cards or prizes, offers things that are too good to be true, advertises credit card or loan offers, or asks you about your account number or payment transactions should be discarded.
Why Do People Receive False Text Messages?
We know what the purpose of a fake SMS is: to have you take an action that compromises you or makes you part with your money. But you may be wondering, why are you receiving them at all?
Sometimes it’s just random luck—scammers can send mass texts to thousands or millions of phone numbers, hoping that some of them will fall into the trap. So, if you do get one, don’t immediately panic. Like the dozens of unwanted emails we get daily, fraudulent text messages can also make their way to us without our phone number having been compromised.
Other times, they may arrive through a more nefarious scheme. Our phone numbers aren’t as private as we might think. Just as telemarketers get a hold of us, so can scammers attain mobile numbers through both public and compromised private databases.
But here again, you shouldn’t panic if you do get a suspicious text. They may even seem to come from someone you know, asking you to quickly transfer them money. The important thing is to know what to look out for.
How to Idenitfy Fake Text Messages: Tips and Tricks
Most fake text messages are easy to spot because they have some telltale warning signs. Here are the most common ones:
Irrelevant to You
If you receive a text message from an unknown sender or even one that looks like it’s coming from a source you know with irrelevant info, chances are it’s either spam or a fake text message.
Spelling and Grammatical Mistakes
Another red flag is grammatical or spelling errors that are purported to come from a business or organization. You may wonder why scammers would be so careless. The point is to hook the most gullible and not waste time with those who will sniff out the con through further interaction.
Unusual or International Phone Numbers
Sometimes, there are legitimate reasons why you may be getting a text message from a foreign phone number. But you should immediately have your guard up and consider it suspicious from the get-go.
Contain a Link or Attachment
Unlike SMS, MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) allows people to send media as text messages to their phones. While an image or video can’t harm your phone, don’t download anything that comes from an unknown source—and don’t click a link.
Contain a Refund Offer
Everyone likes getting money back, but any message that offers to send you back a charge (unless you’ve actually requested one) is trying to scam you.
Claiming You’ve Won Something
Unless you’ve actually entered a giveaway or contest, any text message promising you a prize or even just a heavily discounted item is highly likely to be scam texting. Treat them like spam and ignore them.
Urgent Tone or Requesting IMMEDIATE ACTION
Common text message scams involve a message that claims to be from the tax authorities or some other government body, your bank, or even a family member or friend in crisis. They ask you to quickly take action to avoid penalties or consequences. Keep a cool head and investigate further.
How To Report Fake Text Messages
Now that you know how to spot fake SMS, here’s how to report them. If you’re in the US, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has guidelines on how to report fake text messages.
Don’t immediately reply with “STOP” or follow their instructions to unsubscribe. Sometimes, all the scammers want is a reply to see which phone numbers are active. This can result in you getting even more spam in return or having your genuine phone number sold for further spam or scam purposes.
If your phone’s native messaging app supports it, you may have the option to label the text message as spam and block further texts from that phone number.
You can also search for your mobile carrier’s guidelines on how to report spam text messages to them directly, which helps them blacklist those numbers. In the US, you may forward the suspicious text message to 7726 (SPAM).
The FTC has a designated webpage for reporting fraudulent communications, which helps them combat fraud and protect others in the future.