Texting has become the communication method of choice for many smartphone users. Even my 83-year-old dad texts me and has gotten pretty good at it. A few months ago, he started using animated gifs to express his pleasure with a project we were working on together and upcoming visit plans — a cartoon dog with a jaunty hat is his favorite. Just last week, he sent his first video in a text to me that showed a family of deer in the field behind his pool. But some senders are not so delightful.
Spam and scam texts are increasing in volume, which parallels the rise in texting and the improvement of email programs to identify and block spam. Further, the pandemic may also have contributed to this annoyance as texting became a commonplace form of communication between remote workers. According to the makers of the app RoboKiller, spam text messages reached 7.4 billion, nearly 1 billion more than spam calls in the same month. These texts are less time-consuming to produce, reach targets more reliably and faster than calls and are easier to send for spammers and scammers. In other words, the “return on investment” for texts is higher than the ROI for calls.
It’s important to understand the difference between spam and scam. Spam refers to messages that are usually unwanted sales pitches that you did not subscribe to receive. Like with email, if you subscribed to receive text messages, say in exchange for a merchant discount, that’s not really spam. If you no longer want to receive offers or updates from a company, it should be easy to unsubscribe to them and most legitimate merchants will include an unsubscribe mechanism in at least the first text. Thereafter, you may have to visit the website and contact customer service if you want to be taken off their list.
Spammers will not make it easy to unsubscribe. In fact, you may not ever see the opportunity to do so. And, if you do, clicking “unsubscribe” signals to the spammer that your number is a good one and you will continue to receive the unwanted texts. So the first rule of dealing with spam is to never engage. When you see a spam email on your phone, swipe to delete it.
Scam texts may look like spam, but the intent is harmful. A scammer’s purpose, whether that’s text, call or email, is to gain access to your device to steal sensitive information via malware like a credit card stored on your phone or steal it by convincing you to hand over credit card details and the like. Like with spam texts, do not engage with suspicious texts. That means ignore unsubscribe offers, never follow a link from a text and do not respond in any way.
While your actions are the primary protection mechanism, your phone can also help. Both Android phones and iPhones have spam-filtering features that you can enable. If you are an Android user, open the Messages app, click on the three dots in the upper-right corner, select “Settings” and then tap on “Spam protection.” Toggle on “Enable spam protection.” Once you do that, numbers that come into your phone will be run anonymously through Google’s system and automatically blocked if they have been reported as spam.
For iPhone users, it works differently and not as well. Spam protection on iPhones only blocks phone numbers that you don’t have saved in your contacts list and haven’t been in contact with before. This filter may be OK most of the time, but if you are expecting a text from a service provider, the text will be blocked and shunted to a list for review. To turn this on, open the Settings app, select “Messages” and then “Filter Unknown Senders” and toggle it on.
Alternately or in addition to the filters, you can block individual numbers from contacting you again if a spam or scam call gets through. Android will give you the opportunity to report a suspicious text as spam or clear it if you say it’s legitimate. Open the message, tap the three dots, select “Details” and then “Block & report spam.” For iPhone users, open the text and select the user icon at the top of the window, tap on the info icon, then the info button and scroll down to “Block this Caller.”
The last step you can take is to forward the text to 7726 (spells spam), which will serve to report the text to your carrier who will follow up with you. Depending on what safeguards your carrier has in place, this information can help it build a more robust system to identify a risky text as it comes into your phone or, better yet, block it altogether for its customers.