The first text came through shortly before 7 a.m. Then another 15 minutes later. And at around 11:30 a.m. And at 12:10 p.m. In a mere 30 hours, I’d qualified for a credit consultation, won some kind of contest, scored part-time flexible work and was alerted to the existence of a three-bedroom apartment I could own for $429 a month.
I was being attacked by robotexts.
Some were sent from legitimate-looking numbers and mentioned household names, like Amazon and Walmart. Other messages could, at first glance, pass for someone merely texting the wrong person. (“This is the info I was telling you about last week.”) What most had in common were creepy-looking links, encouraging me to, for instance, track delivery of my “AMX” gift card.
Robotexts are similar to robocalls in that spammers use them to trick you into sharing your personal information. I wanted to find out whether I was an anomaly, or whether we should be bracing for an epidemic of unwanted texts like we’ve seen with robocalls.
Last year, consumers filed 93,331 complaints about unwanted text messages to the Federal Trade Commission, up from 71,776 the prior year. T-Mobile says that it blocked a record number of spam texts in July—an average of 1 million a day—and that it has seen a 20% average increase month-over-month in the number of blocked texts in 2019. Verizon says that, along with its SMS partners, it has been blocking almost 500 million spam messages a month this year, double the volume from last year.
At just under 3%, spam texts are still a very low percentage of total SMS messages exchanged, according to the CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade association. It also says that because voice and messaging platforms are regulated differently, carriers can be more aggressive in targeting unwanted texts.
But text is also a highly attractive medium for bad actors. We’re texting more than ever these days, and businesses are increasingly contacting their customers through text, to confirm appointments or send flight-status information and verification codes. And unlike phone calls, texts can contain links.
“The danger with spam messages is a lot of them are phishing scams,” says Ethan Garr, a senior vice president at Teltech, a subsidiary of IAC, which developed the call-blocking app RoboKiller. “It looks like it’s Bank of America . You put in your banking credentials, and their system tries those credentials on the Bank of America website.”
Verizon says it’s shifting more attention to spam texts. And the Federal Communications Commission recently closed a loophole, allowing it to pursue enforcement against number-spoofing text scammers. Last year, it rejected a request that would have limited carriers’ ability to block such texts.
Meanwhile, much like its evil big sibling, the spammy robocall, there isn’t one button to press to stop spam robotexts. We’re in partial-solutions territory. Here’s what you should—and shouldn’t—do if hit by shady robotexts.
Don’t click anything
Robotexts often include a link in the body of the message. (“You’ve won, click here!”) Do not click! These links could lead to malware that can infect your phone. Even more likely, it’s a ploy to get you to share sensitive personal information.
Several of the spam messages said I could opt out by replying “STOP,” which seemed like a reasonable thing to do. I get robotexts from my doctor’s office and my cellphone carrier with opt-out instructions. You can type STOP if the robotexter in question is a known business, and you just want them to leave you alone.
But much like phone scammers, text scammers are looking to engage with you and this can be a trap. Replying can confirm your number is in service—that is valuable to scammers, who might sell your digits to others, driving up the volume of texts and calls.
Forward the message
The FCC recommends you copy spam messages and text them to the number 7726 (SPAM). That will alert your carrier that you’ve received an unwanted text and help it recognize and block spam. Of course, while you’re copying the message, don’t accidentally click any links!
You can also report unwanted texts to both the FTC and the FCC:
- FTC Text Message Spam help page
- FTC Complaint Assistant
- FCC Unwanted Robocalls and Texts help page
- FCC Consumer Complaint Center
The data can help the agencies with enforcement, as in this recent case.
Block the number
When in doubt, use your phone’s block function instead of typing STOP. Blocking individual numbers can still be like Whac-A-Mole, though, since robotexts often come from a rotating cast of characters.
To do this on an iPhone, tap on the message and then on the number at the top of the screen. Tap the “i” button for info, then tap the number. (Do not touch the phone icon: You don’t want to accidentally call these folks.) Then scroll down to where it says “Block this caller.”
On Android, you can both report spam and block messages from senders.
Consider a call-blocking app
Many call-blocking apps have features to flag spam texts as well. Nomorobo, which costs $1.99 a month, has done a solid job of flagging robocalls so I know not to answer them. The spam filter for text messages is separate—something I hadn’t enabled—and while it will mark a message as “SMS junk,” it won’t stop them from reaching your inbox.
Know that if you enable this, it allows the app to see the content of your texts and the information of senders outside of your contacts. This might include verification codes and other information from banks and other services. Nomorobo says it can view the sender’s phone number and the message’s content but doesn’t know which user got the message.
“We prefer it that way,” says Aaron Foss, the app’s founder. “There’s a lot of sensitive information there. I don’t know if I’d feel comfortable tying it back.”
RoboKiller has a similar feature. Blocked messages aren’t associated with a user, says Mr. Garr. “The messages are never shared with any external parties, and there is no human intervention or review of these messages.”
A word about political texts
As we approach another election, the volume of political texts you receive might increase. Political campaigns are actually allowed to send you texts, so long as they have your express consent and aren’t relying on an auto-dialer. If you don’t want them, go ahead and reply STOP.
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