Text Message Scams: Don't Text Back, Warns FTC

Responding Can Open Your Phone to Identity Theft

Woman using a cell phone.
Unwanted Text Messages Can be Dangerous Scams. Tracy Packer / Getty Images

 The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning of a breed of identity theft scams that attack you through text messages on smart-phones. While the scams are potentially dangerous, the defense is simple, according to the FTC. Just, "Don't text back."

The scarily convincing scams works like this: You get an unexpected text message informing you that your email account has been hacked into and deactivated "for your protection." The message will tell you to reply or "text back" in order to reactivate your account.

Here is an example of one of the scam texts:

“User #25384: Your Gmail profile has been compromised. Text back SENDNOW in order to reactivate your account.”

What’s the Worst Than Can Happen?

Don't do it, advises the FTC, warning that at least two bad things might happen if you do:

  • Responding to the text message can allow malware to be installed that will silently collect personal information from your phone. Imagine what an identity thief could do with the information from an online banking or credit card management app. If they don’t use your information themselves, the spammers may sell it to marketers or other identity thieves.
  • You might end up with unwanted charges on your cell phone bill. Depending on your service plan, you may be charged for sending and receiving text messages, even scams.

Yes, It IS Illegal

Under federal law, it is illegal to send unsolicited text messages or email to mobile devices, including cell phones and pagers without the owner’s permission.

In addition, sending unsolicited text or voice mail or telemarketing messages using a mass auto-dialer, so-called “robocalls” is illegal.

But There are Exceptions

In some cases, unsolicited text messages are allowed.

  • If you have established a relationship with a company, it may legally text you things like statements, account activity alerts, warranty information or special offers. In addition, schools are allowed to text informational or emergency messages to parents and students.
  • Political surveys and fundraising messages from charities may be sent as text messages.

How to Handle Scam Text Messages

Do not reply or text back to messages like that because, "Legitimate companies won't ask you to verify your identity through unsecure channels, like text or email, " warns the FTC.

Do not click on any links that might be included in the message. The links may install malware on your device and take you to spoofing or phishing websites that will try to get you to provide your personal information.

Do delete the message from your phone.

Do report the suspect message to your cell phone service carrier's spam/scam text reporting number. AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and Bell customers can forward the text message free of charge to 7726 (SPAM).

Do File a complaint with the FTC’s easy to use and secure. Online Complaint Assistant.

If your email account ever is really hacked, chances are you'll know it. But what can you do about it?

The FTC offers a great article, "Hacked Email," that explains the telltale signs of a hacked email account and how to fix it safely.