April 5, 2020

Texting Scams and COVID-19: What You Need to Know

SMS texting scams aren’t new. Scammers are taking advantage of these uncertain times to launch new attacks on your personal data.

Although you should always be cautious about answering calls or replying to texts from unknown numbers, things are even more serious these days. Given the current COVID-19 situation, texting scams impersonating public health authorities and governments are on the rise. 

Texting is a common and convenient way of disseminating information. Now that we’re seeing all kinds of professions moving into the remote working sphere, it follows that more and more people will use text messages to stay in touch. 

For example, teachers are texting more than ever, staying in touch with their students while keeping the curriculum moving through e-learning. But it’s unlikely that any public health authority would be calling or texting you directly to inform you of new immediate protective measures. 

It’s crucial to distinguish between legitimate text messages and scam texts, and be aware of the best ways to protect your personal information. So let’s explore some of the key terms associated with these scams, and how you can protect yourself.

What is Phishing? 

Phishing” is a cybercrime wherein targets are contacted via email, telephone or text message. It’s a type of social engineering designed to get the victim to real information. The message is sent by a person impersonating a legitimate organization.

The goal of phishing scams is to gain your personal data, often for purposes of identity theft. The perpetrators send fraudulent emails designed to trick the victim into opening an attachment or clicking on a malicious hyperlink. 

Smishing is a newer word, a combination of “SMS” (short message services, AKA text messages) and “phishing.” While “phishing” originated over email, “smishing” is used to distinguish texting-only cybercrime.

Common Smishing Scams

You’re a Winner!  

These texts announce an incredible financial offer or inform you of a big lottery win. For instance, you may receive a smishing text claiming that you have won a lottery, sweepstakes, or some other prize. Or the text may inform you of a great financial opportunity if only you’ll provide a small investment.

These texts are the most outlandish and easiest to spot as scams. Everyone is incredulous when told they’ve won a massive prize in a contest they can’t recall entering.

Reply Urgently

These messages will inform you that an immediate response is necessary, and they prey upon your sense of urgency. They may send you multiple messages or instruct you to respond within a short time frame.

The scammer may pose as a trusted institution like Facebook or Twitter, or any service you’re used to receiving automated texts from. They may ask you to “validate” your password and login information. Similarly, they may threaten that a failure to do so will result in the deactivation of your account. Because real businesses and services will give you ample time to follow up and a way to contact them, this urgent tone is a good indicator of fraud.

Hyperlinks

Hyperlinks are the clickable links that you’re probably already familiar with from legitimate texts and emails. However, it’s very easy to mask a hyperlink in a text message, and the link you appear to be clicking could redirect you to a different web page entirely.

For instance, a familiar service like Netflix or Snapchat, but with an unfamiliar top-level domain like .io or .info that the impersonated service does not actually use. The goal is to send you to a fake website where you may enter real information. Don’t do it, and do not click on embedded links. These links can contain malicious code snippets that can install automatically on your mobile device.

Impersonation Texts

These occur when unscrupulous individuals contact the victim in the guise of an authority figure or popular company. They may say they are the FBI, a financial institution, or some other widely-recognized conglomerate or service. For example, this delivery scam where scammers send realistic-looking text messages, posing as shipping services like FedEx.

Recently, the media reported a similar issue with swarm of fraudulent texts informing victims that they had been drafted into military service. These fraudulent texts were a hoax and no one was actually being conscripted. If you receive a suspected impersonation text, the best thing to do is contact the agency directly to check whether the sender is valid.

What Are COVID-19 Scams?

Scammers are taking advantage of the current global crisis amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These scams were created to either maximize the scammer’s profits or intended to disrupt the recipients’ lives. Let’s review some of the recent scams to be aware of:

Face Mask Scams and Test Kit Scams

There have been media reports of calls and SMS messages that claim to be from the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders. These texts promise free protective face masks (“PPE” or Personal Protective Equipment), provided free of charge and directly to your door. All the sender requests is a delivery fee. The end goal for the scammer is to capture your credit card details. 

Another related scam claims to offer free COVID-19 testing kits to be completed at home. Similar to the mask scam, it requests personal information to send you your kit. No home-testing kits are currently endorsed by public health authorities, so it’s clear that this is a scam. The best way to avoid these scams is to use your common sense and independently verify the information you receive via text.

Coronavirus Positive Results / Vaccine Scams

In this scam, fraudsters contact victims via call or text and claim that they have tested positive for COVID-19. They then request the target’s personal information in order to send them a vaccine or a cure.  

But no such treatment is currently available according to the Centers for Disease Control, and this scam preys upon fears of contracting the illness. For health concerns, it’s best to contact your physician or research public health information about ways to access a real test. 

Insurance Benefit Scams

This scam mimics contact from the government. The scammer claims to be contacting you so they may send you an insurance payout or economic stimulus cheque. They may also claim to be contacting you to assist with your unemployment filing. They may offer to provide you with immediate payment via cheque or direct deposit. 

But the government will always contact you through official channels. If you receive an unexpected call or text regarding these topics, verify that the caller is legitimate by reaching out to the agency independently.

How Can I Protect Myself from Scammers?

It’s important to exercise caution when receiving text messages from unknown senders and to verify that the sender is who they claim to be

If you receive a concerning text from an official-sounding authority and want to verify whether it’s real, the best thing to do is contact the company or agency directly. 

Do not call any numbers or email addresses sent in the message itself. Look up the real contact info and verify whether your message-sender is legitimate. Refrain from sharing any personal information with an unconfirmed contact. Don’t let a sense of urgency rush you into sharing personal details. Delete the text or block the number, or hang up the phone. Report any scam texts to the appropriate authorities.

We know that the last thing anybody needs these days is another thing to worry about. But use your common sense, do your due diligence, and you can stay protected from these fraudsters. 

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