The rise of text and phone scams and why you should worry

Phone and text scams are out of control, and the problem is only getting worse. Here are some steps on how to protect yourself.

The text was from a number I didn't recognize, but there was no question I knew the sender's name.

He identified himself as the CEO of a company I've worked with for years, and he had a favor to ask. Would I mind going to the nearest Apple Store and texting him a list of available gift card denominations? He planned to buy a few for his staff as a surprise.

I was immediately suspicious.

For one thing, the CEO is in California, and I'm 2,500 miles away in Massachusetts. He also deflected my request for a call to confirm details by explaining that he was on a conference call with a client, an unlikely excuse on a Saturday afternoon.

When I again insisted that he call to confirm, the texter went silent for good.

A quick search showed that the Apple gift card scam is common enough that Apple has devoted a page to it on its support site.

Phone and text scams are out of control, and the problem is only getting worse, according to a report released last week by Truecaller.

The survey of more than 2,000 American adults found that one in three has fallen victim to a phone scam with an average loss of $577, up from $502 in 2021.

The company projected that nearly $40 billion was lost in phone scams in the U.S. alone over the past 12 months.

Meanwhile, spam texts – called "smishing" for the combination of SMS and phishing - have more than doubled in three years. Robokiller estimated that 87 billion of them were sent in 2021, up 58% from the previous year and that they collectively resulted in about $10 billion in losses.

Trust crisis

The scourge has ruptured the fabric of trust around an essential form of communication.

Truecaller found that 90% of respondents to its survey said they only answer calls if they recognize the caller's name, even though one in four admit they've missed legitimate calls as a result.

The problem has remained stubbornly resistant to automated solutions.

Last year the FCC began requiring phone companies to adopt a set of protocols called STIR/SHAKEN that was intended to create a framework for verifying the identity of Caller ID information.

Even though most carriers have complied, research indicates that scammers quickly found ways to route around the limitations. For example, last week, I received a purported call from my healthcare provider, who turned out to be a guy trying to sell me an auto warranty.

Protect yourself

Assuming the problem will be with us for a long time, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself.

Stop and think. Scammers favor messages that are intended to inspire impulsive reactions, such as telling you your bank account is about to be closed. Think about it:

Would an institution in a heavily regulated industry like financial services communicate such news via text message?

Don't answer calls from people you don't know. Of course, many of us already do this, but scammers are employing new tactics like spoofing calls to appear as though they come from a local area code and a number similar to yours.

Even if the Caller ID looks legit, it's safer to let the call go to voicemail than to answer, and reveal that there's a real person at your number.

Never click a link in an anonymous text message. The temptation can be difficult to resist sometimes. For example, when I was in Spain a few weeks ago, I got a text allegedly from my credit card company informing me that my account was being suspended for suspicious activity and that I should click a link to restore service. A call to the provider's local number informed me otherwise.

Never click on links in a text unless you know the sender very well and never, ever click a URL from a link-shortening service.

Never act on a message telling you you've won money. I mean, c'mon.

Never reveal personal information to a texter or caller unless you are sure of their identity. Legitimate businesses will never ask you to do so.

Finally, here's an interesting tip from Reader's Digest:

If you answer a call and hear "Can you hear me?" you should hang up immediately. Scammers do this to entice you into saying "yes," a response they record and then use to unlock all kinds of sensitive information using voice response systems.

It's a shame that so much innovative energy is wasted on such predatory tactics.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon