Text Message Scams 101: Expert Tips to Flag and Avoid Them

Scammers are everywhere, including lurking in your text messages. Learn about the latest text message scams and how to avoid becoming a victim.
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If you own a cell phone, you’ve probably received scam text messages. They usually come from unknown numbers and may seem completely harmless. However, these phishing attempts can result in malware infection, financial loss, data leaks, and even identity theft.

Recognizing text message fraud and using a good identity protection program is essential. Keep reading to learn how to spot smishing scams and what to do if you’ve already fallen victim to these attacks.

In this article
What are text message scams?
How do text message scams work?
How to recognize text message scams
What are the consequences of a text message scam?
How to respond to text message scams
What to do if a text message scammer has your info
Text message scams FAQ
Bottom line

What are text message scams?

Text message scams (or smishing) are phishing attacks designed to steal your personal or financial information. What may appear as a harmless spam text message could actually lead to severe consequences.

Text messages feel more personal than emails, and we tend to respond to them more often. This fact makes smishing scams very compelling and dangerous. Fortunately, each scam follows a predictable pattern; once you learn to recognize it, you can stop text message fraud in its tracks.

How do text message scams work?

Each text message scam has the same “anatomy.” They’re all social engineering attacks that can only succeed with your cooperation. In other words, the scammer has to trick you into doing something.

Here are the three main components of text scams:

  • Initial contact: Scammers will send fake messages with alluring hooks. These can range from promises of gifts and prizes to urgent warnings about your online accounts. The main idea is to entice you or create a sense of urgency and get you to make a mistake. These messages will usually ask you to install something, click a link, share private info, or share access to your device.
  • Building trust: Scammers will often impersonate a trusted entity (your bank or the IRS, for example). They’ll send fake text messages urging you to do something that’ll allow them to complete the attack. If they take the time to personalize the scam, they can even mimic your friends or family members. The main idea is to establish trust and remove any doubt about the legitimacy of the message.
  • Stealing your private info: If you follow the scammer’s instructions, you’ll allow them to steal your information. Depending on the scam, this can include your passwords, Social Security number, financial details, and more.

How to recognize text message scams

Malicious messages will often feature one of these elements:

  • A sense of urgency: Scammers will try to pressure you as much as possible. They’ll use urgency tactics to get you to act out of fear without fully considering the consequences. For example, "URGENT: Your account has been compromised! Click this link now to secure your account or risk losing access." We recommend staying calm and never rushing into things, no matter how grim or urgent the message sounds.
  • An irresistible offer: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be wary of any giveaways, inheritances, free vacations, discounts, free trials, or prizes.
  • The message is not personalized: Most communication from banks, utility companies, or other legitimate companies will include your name. Beware of texts with vague introductions like “Sir/Madam” or “Dear user.”
  • Suspicious links: You should never click on links in text messages — they can contain malware and infect your phone. A missed delivery notification is one of the most famous examples. A text message states there’s a delay with your shipment, or you need to update your shipping preferences. The scammer includes a link that’ll take you to their website. Unfortunately, it’s a fake phishing site that records your info.
  • Personal info requests: Scammers may prompt you to “verify” personal information via text message. No respectable company would ever try to get info verification through a text.
  • Poor writing: A tell-tale sign of a text message scam is an abundance of typos and grammatical errors.

What are the consequences of a text message scam?

The consequences of identity theft can be devastating. In addition to causing damage, identity theft can take a long time to reverse (if at all). It also causes emotional stress that can last for years.

Here are the most common consequences of falling for a smishing scam:

  • Financial loss: One of the most obvious consequences of a text message scam is a significant financial loss. Criminals can empty your bank account, open lines of credit in your name, rack up huge credit card bills, and more.
  • Medical identity theft: Scammers can use your medical info to obtain medical services, prescriptions, or equipment. They can also exploit your medical insurance to bill for prescription drugs and medical procedures. The most dangerous part of medical identity theft is that fraudulent actions enter your medical record; you can receive wrong and dangerous treatments based on the scammer's medical history.
  • Account takeover: With your login info, scammers can access your online accounts and lock you out. This can include your email, financial accounts, social media profiles, and more.
  • Mortgage and deed fraud: Mortgage deed fraud, also known as home title fraud, occurs when a criminal steals your identity and transfers your home title to their name without you even knowing.
  • Tax identity theft: Criminals can use your personal information to file a tax return in your name and cash in.
  • Committing crimes in your name: This constitutes criminal identity theft. The crimes can range from simple traffic violations to severe transgressions. You could end up with a criminal record or even a warrant for your arrest without even knowing.
  • Your data on the dark web forever: Personal data is a valuable currency on the dark web. Instead of actually using your info, scammers can sell it to other criminals lurking on the dark web. Once your information is out there, you can never take it down.

How to respond to text message scams

As mentioned, all phishing scams have to trick you into doing something; they can’t succeed otherwise. As such, fraudulent text messages are not inherently dangerous. You can keep them that way by doing the following:

  • Do not respond: The best response is no response. Ignore the message completely.
  • Do not click on links: Savvy scammers can install malware on your device if you click on harmful links.
  • Don’t try to outsmart the scammer: It can be tempting to engage in conversation and outsmart the scammer or waste their time. But it’s best to walk away from the conversation. Ignore, delete, and report the messages as spam.
  • Delete the scam text: Deleting the scam text removes any temptation to respond.
  • Block the number: Block the number so you no longer receive unwanted spam text messages from that number.
  • Report scam messages: There are a few ways to report unsolicited text messages. You can copy the message and forward it to 7726 (SPAM), which helps your provider identify and block spam texts in the future. You can also report it as spam in your messaging app. In addition, you can report spam messages to the FTC.

Spam calls are the Federal Trade Commission’s top consumer complaint. Just like with smishing texts, these phony calls often use convincing phishing tactics to gain access to your sensitive data.

What to do if a text message scammer has your info

If you’ve responded to a text message scam and the scammer has your info, don’t panic. You can take steps to mitigate the consequences, but time is of the essence. If you’ve clicked on a link or handed over sensitive information, here are some steps you can take:

  • Disconnect your phone from your network
  • Clear your browsing history, downloads, and cache
  • Run a malware scan
  • Uninstall unknown apps
  • Change your passwords immediately
  • Enable 2FA
  • Alert your credit card provider(s)
  • Check your credit reports
  • Alert the credit bureaus
  • Freeze your credit with all three bureaus
  • If you suspect identity theft, consider changing your phone number
  • Inspect your credit card statements
  • Report the incident to the authorities
  • Consider signing up for identity theft protection services
  • Reset your phone as a last resort

What are the best identity protection services?

Here are the top services that can help you protect your sensitive info from fraudulent text messaging:

  • Aura: This identity theft protection program offers numerous ID protection features like auto and home title alerts, SSN, credit, and bank account monitoring. It also provides a password manager, VPN, and antivirus software.

    Get Aura | Read Aura Review

  • Norton LifeLock: This top-rated identity theft protection service offers multiple monitoring features, such as dark web, home title, and social media monitoring. It also includes up to $3 million in identity theft insurance. As a bonus, Norton LifeLock offers phone takeover protection, alerting you of suspicious activity with your phone number.

    Get Norton LifeLock | Read Norton LifeLock Review

  • Identity Guard: Like most ID theft protection services, Identity Guard monitors financial accounts, SSNs, social media, the dark web, emails, and credit accounts. It offers up to $1 million in identity theft insurance and removes identifying information about you from data brokers across the web.

    Get Identity Guard | Read Identity Guard Review

Text message scams FAQ


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What happens if you open a text from a scammer?

Simply opening a text from a scammer doesn’t necessarily translate to compromised online security. But sharing your info, clicking on links, or downloading anything could jeopardize your digital security and privacy.


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Should I respond to a text from an unknown number?

While you likely won’t get hacked from just responding to an unknown number, there’s no upside either. If you get a text from an unknown number, it’s best to ignore, delete, or report it as spam.


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Can a scammer take over your phone?

Yes, sophisticated scammers can take over your phone. Your phone is an access point to a lot of personal information—account info, login credentials, personal identifying information, and more. By hacking your phone, the scammer can also access your cached data — a trove of valuable information. If your phone has been compromised, follow our guide to remove a hacker from your phone.


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What are common text message scams?

Text message or smishing scams are among the most common ways phishers steal personal information. Popular scenarios include copycat bank fraud prevention alerts, gifts or giveaway texts, fake package delivery notifications, fake job offers, “Amazon” security alerts, fake IRS alerts, and more.


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Can someone steal my information through a text message?

No one can hack you or steal your information just by texting you. As long as you don’t click on links or provide any info, you and your personally identifiable information are generally safe.

Bottom line

Criminals can cause a lot of harm through a simple text message. Fortunately, they can’t hack you simply by texting; they need your help. So, as long as you ignore their prompts, they are essentially powerless.

Some must-have security habits include avoiding suspicious links, staying calm when scammers try to pressure you, never sharing your private info with anyone, etc. You can also get a good identity protection program.

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Author Details
Courtney Daybell is a professional writer interested in online privacy. With a bachelor's degree in communications from Brigham Young University, she has written for more than 15 years with a strong foundation in print journalism.