Life

How Do I Stop SMS Scams From Ruining My Life?

“Liste  n to your ne w voicem ail [link that definitely doesn’t want me to empty my bank account and hand over my personal data] lv.”
Kelly Rowland texts on Excel
Universal Motown Records

Scams: It seems they’ve become almost universally accepted - deemed unavoidable - just another element of the technology that giveth and taketh away. It is something we are all simply expected to cope with. Every goddamn day. We know a potential mitigation strategy is probably just a few clicks away, but we also know, on some granular, primordial level, that it would be more effort than it’s worth.

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The texts just keep coming.

They’ve become just another unfortunate accessory to living in our digital world: the spam emails of SMS land. It’s impossible to make a purchase these days without being added to some godforsaken list that blesses you with a never-ending churn of sales, discounts and specials directly to your inbox for all of foreseeable eternity. Unsubscribing is unpaid labour - it makes much more sense to just succumb. Such is our fate. 

But being able to ignore the texts is a privilege, because to be able to identify a scam on sight isn’t a universal skill. The scammers are aware: the messages are getting savvier and savvier just as they are increasing in supply. They masquerade as shipping delivery texts when everyone is online-pandemic-shopping. They play doctors when everyone is sick. They pretend to be your voicemail inbox. Service providers, package arrivals, booking references… it goes on.

But for the love of God, what can be done?

Hoping for some nugget of wisdom not yet touched on in the yearly scams coverage, I reached out to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Before we go further I’m going to be honest with you: A spokesperson got back to me and I’ve been trying to read the response for five hours. At two sentences in, the clouds arrive, the fog descends on my brain and all is quiet. 

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But here it is in short: SMS scams are increasing in the community. The rumours are true. 

The ACCC received 144,000 scam reports in 2021, with losses of $100 million. The most common contact method is phone, however SMS is only the second most reported contact method and has “comparatively lower” losses to email, social networks and internet based scams.

“This year to February 2022, the ACCC’s Scamwatch has seen a 124% increase in SMS scam reports and a 421% increase in losses,” the spokesperson said in an email. Which seems like a lot, right?

They also said that the “coronavirus pandemic exposed Australia to heightened cyber threats”. 

Which, like…Yes.

But all hope is not lost.

In December, 2021, new laws were introduced to amend regulations associated with the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act, to allow telcos to identify and block scams and malicious text messages themselves. So, effectively, a provider like Optus could intercept the scams before they even make it to your tortured inbox. If they wanted to, that is.

Which could explain why the problem isn’t getting much better. 

It isn’t all so grim, though. In April, Telstra announced new technology to automatically detect and block scam texts sent across its network. The tech involves automatic scanning of messages to identify suspicious patterns and characteristics that all scams share.

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It’s kind of impossible to avoid SMS scams altogether, though. Hell, I just received another.

It says: 

“Liste  n to your ne w voicem ail [link that definitely doesn’t want me to empty my bank account and hand over my personal data] lv.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking the scammers are just getting lazy. Bad spelling, grammatical errors, incomprehensible messages. But these are mass-communicated, the mistakes are intentional. The primary target of these scams are not the kind of people who would immediately identify the spelling mistakes as evidence of a scam. There are several steps of the scams, and someone who was turned off by spelling errors would never proceed through. They’re targeting people who are distracted, anxious, unused to technology, or desperate. 

The ACCC said there are many ways scammers acquire phone numbers, including through “computers programmed with auto diallers” that will send texts or call, “just hoping someone will respond”. 

There are a few tedious ways to combat scam texts.

You can report to your telco if you are receiving a high volume. You can report scams to Scamwatch. You can report spam to ACMA.

And a spokesperson for the ACCC said to never click on suspicious links in an SMS. 

“Remember the 3D’s: Do not click, Do not download, and Delete!”

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Instead, you should tell your friends and family, as they “can offer you support” while “you can help protect them”.

If you are scammed, contact your bank immediately.

Finally, for anyone who thinks their personal information may be compromised, the ACCC spokesperson recommended contacting IDCARE on 1800 595 160, for free practical and behavioural support, to minimise the harm caused by identity compromise.

All that to say, I can’t help you. 

Maybe you could go 1990 mode… Do landlines still exist? 

How about phone in ocean? 

You could change your phone number, but I guarantee they’ll find you.

Just don’t click any links. 

Trust no one. 

You’ll figure it out.

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Read more from VICE Australia.