A few weeks ago, I woke up to an early morning text message on my smartphone. It wasn’t my editor or a needy friend in a different time zone. It was a message from myself. “Free Msg: Your bill is paid for March. Thanks, here’s a little gift for you,” the text from my own phone number read, pointing me to a web link. In the last month I’ve received a handful of such texts.
In online forums, many Verizon customers have reported the same experience. It was clear to me what was going on. Scammers had used internet tools to manipulate phone networks to message me from a number they weren’t actually texting from. It was the same method that robocallers use to “spoof” phone calls to appear as though they are coming from someone legitimate, like a neighbour. Had I clicked on the web link, I most likely would have been asked for personal information like a credit card number, which a scammer could use for fraud.
Consumers have struggled with cellphone spam for years, primarily in the form of robocalls with scammers incessantly ringing to leave fraudulent messages about late payments for student loans, audits by the Internal Revenue Service and expired car warranties. Only recently has mobile phone fraud shifted more toward texting, experts said. Spam texts from all sorts of phone numbers — and not just your own — are on the rise. In March, 11.6 billion scam messages were sent on American wireless networks, up 30 percent from February. That outpaced robocalls, which rose 20 percent in the same period, according to an analysis by Teltech, which makes anti-spam tools for phones.
Verizon confirmed that it was investigating the text issue. On Monday, it said it had fixed the problem. “We have blocked the source of the recent text messaging scheme in which bad actors were sending fraudulent text messages to Verizon customers which appeared to come from the recipient’s own number,” said Adria Tomaszewski, a Verizon spokeswoman.
Representatives for AT&T and T-Mobile said they had not seen the same problem. But text spam affects all wireless subscribers, and carriers now offer resources online for how people can protect themselves and report spam.
Text scams vary widely but often involve getting you to cough up your personal data with messages disguised as tracking updates for phony package deliveries, or information about health products and online banking. Their rise has been fuelled partly by the fact that messages are so effortless to send, Teltech said. In addition, industry-wide and government efforts to crack down on robocalls may be pushing scammers to move on to text messages.
“Scammers are always looking for the next big thing,” said Giulia Porter, a vice president at Teltech. “Spam texts are just increasing at a much more drastic rate than spam calls.”
The links in a scam text often look strange. Instead of a traditional web link composed of “www.websitename.com,” they are web links that contain sentences or phrases, like droppoundsketo.com. This practice, called URL masking, involves using a phony web link that directs you to a different web address that asks for your personal information.
There’s a moral to this story: We can help prevent spam from flooding our phones if we stop sharing our phone numbers with people we don’t fully trust. That includes the cashier at a retail store asking for our phone number to get a discount, or an app or a website asking for our digits when we sign up for an account. Who knows where our digits eventually end up after they reach the hands of marketers?
Chen is a tech writer with NYT©2022
The New York Times