Sophisticated robotexts are bombarding Americans’ phones, costing unsuspecting people millions of dollars.
The text message created an instant surge of panic.
“Freemsg: Chase, Did you attempt wire transfer amount of $7500. Reply Y if recognized, Or NO to stop fraud.”
For Ohio resident Kelli Hinton, this was the beginning of a hard-to-detect scam in which a man posing as a Chase Bank fraud investigator ended up clearing two of her bank accounts of $15,000.
And Hinton is hardly alone. Her nightmare is part of a huge surge in sophisticated text message-based scams that now affect hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. Sometimes called “smishing”, short for SMS phishing, the scams trick mobile phone users out of their money using messages purporting to be from a familiar person or company that can be almost impossible to tell from the real thing.
While phishing texts have been around for years, data shows they are on the rise. In 2022 US phone users got 157bn robotexts , or more than 440 a person – an 80% increase from 2021, according to the company Robokiller, which offers a scam-blocking service for cell phones. And last year, more than 321,000 Americans reported having fallen for a phone-based smishing scam, with total losses of over $326m, according to data from the US Federal Trade Commission.
The problem has become so bad that last month the federal government demanded that mobile phone companies start blocking spam texts, in what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) described as its first of several planned steps to combat the rampant phone fraud.
Scammers use an unending variety of creative approaches to try to trick people out of their money.
Some pretend to offer jobs, only to ensnare people into transferring money out of their bank accounts for job supplies. Others pretend to be contacting the wrong person in the hopes of striking up a conversation, which may then lead to long exchanges that get the phone user to open their wallet. Another common scam involves gleaning the name of a person’s boss from a directory or website, then impersonating that boss and asking for a favor that involves purchasing gift cards. The scammer then asks for photos of the back of the gift cards, saying they’re needed for reimbursement. This, in turn, allows the thieves to cash the cards and make off with the funds.
Increasing levels of scam
Many scam texts pretend to be from a familiar company, like Amazon, UPS or a popular bank.
In Hinton’s case, the scam started with a text message on 3 January, claiming to check whether she had authorized $7,500 being wired out of her account. She hadn’t even had time to respond, before a polite man, identifying himself as “Simon from Chase fraud investigation”, called from a phone number that appeared to exactly match the 800 number on the back of her bank card.
He told her that a scammer had accessed her account and she needed to take prompt action to stop the money being transferred out. Meanwhile, more texts were arriving, announcing more unauthorized wire transfers coming from her account.
The professional-sounding scammer kept her on the phone for over an hour and, at one point, told her she needed to reset her bank credentials and password in order to stop the fraud. This reset of her password apparently allowed the scammers to authorize wire transfers out of her account.
Hinton realized something was amiss when the caller suddenly hung up and she called the bank immediately. But she was transferred from one office to another, she said. In the meantime, the money was gone.
“I was seven months pregnant at this time and I felt like I was ready to have a stroke,” said Hinton. “That was our money that we were saving for our baby.”
Stefan Koester, a policy analyst at a Washington DC technology thinktank, was nearly fooled by a different sort of grift. In January, he got a text claiming to be from the US Postal Service, which said there was an issue with a package due to be delivered to him.
When he clicked the link in the text, Koester said it took him to a website with exactly the same design as the USPS homepage. Koester said he was in a rush that day so didn’t think too much about it and began entering his address information to correct the mailing.
It wasn’t until the prompts asked him to put in his credit card number to pay a $3 fee to change his address that Koester stopped in his tracks.
“The level of scams I get is increasing everyday,” said Koester, in a tweet warning others of the scam. “This one almost got me.”
Text scams can be even harder to avoid than those that come via phone call or email, consumer advocates say, because it’s a communication style with more urgency and one we’re more inclined to trust, since typically people only use texts to communicate with someone they know well.
“People react more to texts than to emails, because they’re so immediate,” said Melanie McGovern, director of public relations for the Better Business Bureau, which tracks thousands of scams annually through its Scam Tracker website. “Scammers know that text messages are opened 95% of the time.”
The scammers, who may be anywhere in the world, use automated systems to blast the texts out to thousands of phone numbers, often at random, experts said. But all it takes is for one or two people to respond for that scammer to pilfer thousands of dollars a day. And few are ever caught.
“People really do need to know what’s happening,” said Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support for the AARP, which gets hundreds of reports of fraud from older Americans every day, who can be particularly vulnerable. “If you get anything asking for a gift card or an exchange of cryptocurrency, stop! It’s a scam,” she advised. “If they want a social security or credit card number or bank account password, you should stop.”
With scams on the rise and criminals acting with seeming impunity, calls for action are mounting.
Some, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, have urged banks to make it more difficult for scammers to drain accounts, using electronic transfer systems, including Zelle. The federal government is also under pressure; the new rule rolled out by the FCC in March will require mobile phone companies to block certain texts before they ever reach consumers and more regulation could be on the way.
“There are more than 362,000 robotexts being sent a minute in America,” said Raja Krishnamoorthi, a congressman of Illinois, citing a 2022 report from Robokiller. Krishnamoorthi has introduced federal legislation that explicitly makes it illegal to use automated telephone equipment to barrage consumers with texts, which would give the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stronger enforcement mechanisms to crack down on scammers.
Additional bank protections might have helped Hinton, who said she reported the wire fraud scam that drained her Chase bank accounts just minutes after it happened, while the funds still appeared to be in her accounts, but was unable to get the bank to stop the transfers.
Reports from the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker website, showed that numerous other Chase customers reported being tricked by the same scam around the beginning of the year.
Hinton said she has now talked to the bank dozens of times, filed police and FBI reports and hired a lawyer. But so far she said has made little progress in recovering the money.
Paul Lussier, a Chase spokesman, called the situation Hinton faced “heartbreaking”. He said the bank is working to educate customers about scams and has added safeguards such as requiring customers to enter a one-time password sent to their phones before adding new wire transfer payees to their accounts. But, he said, if a customer gives a scammer their passwords or account access, the bank does not reimburse them for the losses.
“There are a lot of things we do on the back end to make it harder for scammers to succeed,” he said. “However, consumers also have to be eyes and ears.”
Hinton is still calling on financial institutions to do more to protect customers from having their money instantly swindled away by scammers who can so convincingly pose as bank employees.
“It’s like a black hole,” she said. “Once you’re in it it’s the most frustrating feeling. One guy is able to disguise himself as your bank. He can call from the number on the back of your bank card. And there’s nothing you can do.”