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WECT INVESTIGATES: Uptick in scam texts costing consumers millions

Published: Oct. 6, 2021 at 12:47 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - As annoying as they are, a lot of us have come to live with robo calls. We know to just hang up as soon we hear the recorded voice on the other end of the line.

But what about text messages, especially when the person reaching out knows your name? Are those scams, too? In many cases, the answer is yes.

When the person texting you claims to be your cellular provider, your bank, a package delivery service, or some other trusted source, it can seem believable. Those institutions do send out texts, and it can be hard to detect a fraudster when all you have to go by is a couple of sentences sent via text message, telling you the same type of thing your bank or cell phone company might legitimately share with you via text.

A growing problem

All too often, the person on the other end of that text is not who they are pretending to be. Instead of the trusted source you thought you were communicating with, the person who sent the text may be a fraudster. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says complaints about text scams doubled in 2020 to more than 334,000. Americans who fell for these text schemes lost a whopping $86 million last year.

“People lose their entire life savings. We’ve had many tragic stories of people who got hooked by these calls or texts,” North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein told WECT. “One person here in Raleigh lost her entire life savings, over $1 million.”

Stein said robo calls and texts are the number one issue residents contact his office to complain about. He said once the scammers get your money, it can be next to impossible to get back. Many of them are operating outside of the United States and get victims to wire them money or send them gift cards, making the money very difficult to retrieve.

It’s against the law to send commercial text messages to a cell phone without the consumer’s permission. But criminals don’t care about the law. You may have also unknowingly given them permission to text you by failing to read the fine print when you bought an app or downloaded a free or inexpensive ringtone on your phone.

‘Never click on a link’

The texts from scammers often look legitimate, and the websites they direct you to when you click on the link can look real, too. You may have heard enough warnings to know not to give out your personal information in a potential phishing scheme, but experts say even clicking on the link in one of these scam texts can cause you problems.

Wilmington resident Nick Craig learned that the hard way.

“I’ve clicked on them and looked at them,” Craig said. “If you ever click on one, they tag your phone number and start sending you more. So I made a mistake once trying to see how good of a scam is this, and now I get flooded with [scam texts] literally every single day.”

Some savvy fraudsters will try to trick you by inviting you to text the word STOP to opt out of future messages. But doing that just lets a scammer know they’ve reached a working number, and they have no intent of honoring your request to stop sending texts.

The con artists behind these texts are constantly reinventing their angle. They’re not above using a hardship like the COVID-19 pandemic to trick you. One of the latest iterations of these text scams involves the fraudster posing as someone from the health department, telling you you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID, and asking you to help them with contact tracing. They’ll intentionally use a anxiety-producing scenario to get you to suspend your better judgement and click the link.

“Never click on a link that comes from a text that you don’t know who is sending it,” Stein advises as a bottom line. “If you think it might be someone you know, don’t respond [via text]. Pick up the phone and use it to call them and ask them, ‘Did you send me a text?’”

Advice from the phone companies

If you do receive a text that you suspect to be a scam, you can forward it to 7726 (SPAM). That is monitored by a coalition of wireless providers so they can investigate, monitor and block that sender.

US Cellular says their company does send text messages to customers who opt in to receive those messages, but never includes links in their texts for customers to click. US Cellular says your mobile device may have additional settings to help you deal with scam texts.

Apple lets you block messages. Open the spam text within the Messages app, tap the contact number, then info, followed by the gray arrow on the upper right. Scroll down and select “Block this caller.”

On an Android phone, you can disable all potential spam messages from the Messages app. Tap the three-dot icon in the upper right of the app and select Settings > Spam protection and turn on the Enable spam protection switch. Your phone will now alert you if an incoming message is suspected of being spam.

A spokesperson for Verizon Wireless warned consumers their company does “not currently offer incentives to pay a bill through text messages and encourage anyone receiving a text of that nature to proceed with caution.”

In addition to letting scammers know they’ve reached an active number if you respond, AT&T says clicking on a link can enable bad actors to infect your mobile device.

“The text can open the door for bad guys to install malware on your phone or trick you into giving them personal information. If you want to know if the message is legitimate, call the entity supposedly sending it using a phone number found from a trusted source, such as their secure website or your bill. (Do not use a number or website provided by the possible scammer.)” AT&T advised.

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