Smishing Scams: Sorry, You Did Not Win a $1,000 Target Gift Card

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scams and moneyCyberspace is chock-full of scammers trying to steal our money and even our identities. Most of us know how to avoid the common scam come-ons, but there are always new ones popping up. One of the latest dangers is called "smishing."

Smishing is similar to "phishing," in which you receive an email that seems to be from a reputable source, asking for your credit card data, password, or other private information. Only instead of an email, smishing takes place through the SMS text messages you receive on your cell phone.

Spotting a Smish

An incoming smishing attempt will probably look like it's been sent by a bank or a familiar company, or perhaps a lottery-prize notification service. In phishing emails, you can sometimes spot typos or sloppy writing that will tip you off that the source is a fraudster (though many emails will look absolutely convincing). With smishing, though, the content is more limited and it can be hard to tell a fake from the real thing -- except, of course, for the fact that banks, companies, and lotteries typically won't text you.

Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna advises: "Ignore texts that look like they're coming from your bank or credit card... Flip over your credit or ATM card and call the number on the back. If there's a problem with your account, that's the best way to find out."

Sorry, You Didn't Win

Some big scams making the rounds these days are trying to lure naïve consumers with promises of $1,000 gift certificates to Best Buy (BBY), Walmart (WMT) or Target (TGT). The appeal is clear. Who among us, after all, doesn't need a bigger, thinner, shinier TV? Or a new computer or camera?

The text might announce, "Congratulations, you've won!" and might invite you to enter a code to claim a prize. You may be given a toll-free number to call, or asked to reply to the text. It might have a link for you to click, as well.

All of these are ways for the con artist to seek out suckers. If you respond, he'll know he has a live one on the line and will proceed to extract personal information from you. Or, you may be asked to wire some money before you receive your big check. Clicking on the link might even install a virus on your cell phone.

Retailers whose names are used in these scams are understandably unhappy about it.

A Walmart representative, for example, has explained that the company does not send out text messages seeking personal information. A Best Buy spokesperson noted that, "Best Buy continues to pursue the individuals and entities responsible for using Best Buy's trademark without authorization. We share the frustration of our customers, and are taking efforts that will put an end to this unauthorized use."

ABCs from the BBB

The Better Business Bureau has issued warnings about this kind of scam. Here's some advice from the BBB:

  • Don't fall for it. Know that retailers or others generally don't just give away very valuable gift cards or products for free. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Don't reply. Delete the message, without replying. If the text includes a phone number, don't call it. You'll just be calling attention to yourself as a potential victim to target. Don't click any links, as they could leave dangerous files on your phone or other device.
  • Don't give up your personal information. You may be told that your information is needed in order to release a prize to you. Don't believe it. Don't give your bank account number or wire money to anyone, either. (Some scammers say you need to send in money for shipping or taxes, for example, before they can send you a big gift.)
  • Report it. Call your cell-phone service provider and have the number the text came from blocked. You might have them block all premium text messages, as well.
  • If the scammers succeed: If you think you've been a victim of smishing, contact the BBB. They can help you determine if you've been victimized and file a complaint against the perpetrator. You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at www.ftc.gov or via 1-877-HELP (4357). You should also call your affected credit card companies or banks, to alert them and perhaps cancel accounts and get new ones.
  • Be vigilant: Finally, remember to check your credit report regularly, for signs of foul play. You may, after all, have been victimized without even realizing it. You can get a free copy of your credit report from each of the reporting agencies once per year, at www.annualcreditreport.com to look for fraudulent activity, and report the incident to BBB.

These scams can make our lives miserable, but only if we let down our guard. Be informed and proactive. You don't have to be a victim.

Motley Fool contributor Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, owns shares of Walmart, but she holds no other position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Best Buy. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a diagonal call position in Walmart.


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