What to know: As robocalls get blocked, text messages could be next big thing for scammers

Texting is a turning into a hot way for scammers to entice harried consumers and catch them off guard. — Dreamstime/TNS

The ongoing pandemic-related stress surely must be worth a free gift, bonus or some sort of discount somewhere.

Unfortunately, we're seeing an onslaught of texts promoting fake Covid-19-themed discounts and deals.

The Better Business Bureau mentions two specific scams that are hitting consumers in September.

There's the text pretending to be from Hulu. "Due to the pandemic, Hulu is giving everyone a free one-year subscription to help you stay at home." All you have to do is click on a link, which of course, will lead to all sorts of trouble.

And there's the text pretending to be from Verizon. "COVID-19 REFUND. VERIZON COMPANY is giving out US$950 (RM3798) to all users of our Verizon service." Again, let's think about this a bit.

Why would Verizon or any company be giving out hundreds of dollars in refund cash? Yep, it's a scam.

The texts are scammers

Texting is a turning into a hot way for scammers to entice harried consumers and catch them off guard.

Across the country, there have been media reports about fake texts that promise US$500 (RM2,093) for low-income home energy assistance, an extra US$1,400 (RM5,862) in government stimulus money, more scammers pretending to be from Amazon, and phony text messages from the Department of Motor Vehicles in some states promising refund cash of US$600 (RM2,512) or more.

As the holiday shopping season heats up, consumers would be wise to once again watch out for fake texts from UPS, FedEx and the United Postal Service, too. Some phony texts might alert you to an "overdue" package or request money for delivery of a package.

Texts could be the new thing, as phone services block more illegal robocalls. Caller ID authentication — which was to be in place for big carriers by June 30 — is designed to make it easier for phone companies to block illegal robocalls in the first place or label them as likely spam.

The Federal Communications Commission has a Sept 28 deadline for phone companies to report their robocall-blocking status or else their calls will be blocked by other companies.

Even so, research by the PIRG Education Fund released Wednesday showed that among 49 of the largest phone companies nationwide — those that can serve one million or more customers — there were only 16 companies that have reported to the Federal Communications Commission that they have completely implemented anti-robocall technology.

Teresa Murray, consumer watchdog for PIRG Education Fund, said phone companies are not required to block texts at this point but the FCC and industry leaders are working on it.

Murray noted that spam apps aren't as good right now at filtering texts but ultimately more advancement could be ahead.

RoboKiller, one large robocall filtering company, said consumers received 7.65 billion spam text messages in August. That's up 8% from 7.07 billion in June.

She noted that FCC rules ban text messages sent to a mobile phone using an autodialler unless you previously gave consent to receive the message or the message is sent for emergency purposes. For commercial texts, your consent must be in writing.

Why we're vulnerable

Scammers could be tracking our habits, too, knowing that we're texting more and very often extremely distracted when we're doing so.

AT&T noted in an alert online: "These days you may be using your cell phone more for texting than for making calls. So, you're probably accustomed to getting short, brief texts that sometimes don't make sense or come from companies or organisations."

The AT&T alert highlighted winning a prize in an Earpods raffle.

In some cases, the scammers even will text you with a so-called warning about potential fraud on your account.

Here's a key tip: "If you are busy," AT&T warns, "don't do anything with the message until you can really evaluate the authenticity."

The Federal Trade Commission, which has been tracking virus-related scams, noted that texting has turned out to be the third most popular way for scammers to connect with consumers.

The FTC noted that 16,237 fraud reports relating to Covid-19 and stimulus money involved consumers who received an offer, alert or other message via text.

The No 1 method of contact was email with 18,466 fraud reports from Jan 1, 2020 through Sept 16, followed by scam-driven websites or apps with 16,888 fraud reports.

Texts can look much more authentic if they appear to be sent from big, well-known names — such as Netflix, Hulu, Verizon and AT&T.

Consumers told me that they've received texts pretending to be from AT&T that state: "We accidentally overcharged your phone bill last month."

Texts might prove useful to scammers because, well, they might look harmless. But experts say you just want to delete those text messages immediately.

The BBB notes: "Scammers often send shortened links that don't let you see where they really lead in the body of their text message. If you click the link, you could be directed to a dangerous website, or you could download malware onto your device."

Anyone who remains hopeful of a deal should go directly to the company itself. Look up the company's official website or a statement you have from the company and make a call or send an email.

The FTC notes that scammers send fake text messages to trick you into giving them your personal information – things like your password, account number or Social Security number.

Once they get that information, the FTC says, they could gain access to your email, bank or other accounts. Or they could sell your information to other scammers. You can report any suspicious text message to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.

You definitely do not want to mindlessly respond to a text that appears to be from your bank, as fraudsters are increasingly savvy with these types of texts.

While the pandemic-related discounts are popular now, consumer watchdogs warn that there are a variety of pitches used by scammers sending a text.

Maybe it's the promise of free gift cards or coupons, low-rate credit cards or even some promise to pay off your college debt.

Or a scammer pretending to be your bank could text saying that they've noticed some suspicious activity on your account.

Remember, the FTC warns that clicking on some of these messages might lead to installing harmful malware on your phone that steals your personal information without you realising it.

Again, the scammers will try any story to convince consumers that this text could be the real deal that they so much deserve during stressful times. – Detroit Free Press/Tribune News Service

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