5 common SMS text scams, and how to avoid them

You can't trust every text message that crosses your phone.

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Image: Ben Patterson

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Something felt wrong as Madeline Prager exchanged texts with a stranger about an ad she posted on Craigslist. “I ultimately didn’t give him the information he asked for, but would it have been safe [to do so]?”

You have to be careful with texts, especially if you can’t be sure who sent them. They could be scams intended to steal your money or your information. Be particularly suspicious if they won’t talk to you (Madeline’s potential buyer had a text-only phone), or if they try to provoke sympathy (he claimed to be in the army and about to deploy).

Full disclosure: Madeline Prager is my wife.

Here are five common text traps you should look out for:

[Have a tech question? Ask PCWorld Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector. Send your query to answer@pcworld.com.]

1. Buyer (and seller) beware: A business transaction with a total stranger is always risky. This is especially true if a party wants to conduct all business over text. Insist on talking over the phone (that’s what is was originally invented for). If you’ll be meeting in person, insist on cash (and have a friend with you). If possible meet outside of a local police station. If accepting payment online, insist on Paypal.

2. The bank trick: Your bank allegedly texts you with a problem that desperately needs to be solved. You’ll lose all of your money if you don’t immediately call the provided 800 number or click the link in the text. Then you have to provide all of your account information. Your account will be fixed alright, but not to your benefit.

Contact your bank, but not via the means in the text.

3. The dumb Samaritan: I’m all for giving money to those in need, but only if the money actually goes to the needy. If you get a text asking for help on behalf of others, delete it—even if it appears to come from a legitimate charity. Then go to that legitimate charity’s website and make your donation there.

4. Money for nothing but not for free: Everyone dreams about acquiring a fortune, and scammers can easily use those dreams against you (so can lotteries and casinos). If a stranger’s text offers you wealth as soon as you pay a small fee or give them your bank number, just tap delete. It’s the old Nigerian Scam in 160 characters or less.

5. Romancing the gullible: If you’re looking for love on dating sites, be careful of whomever seems interested. When you’re feeling lonely, a skilled con artist can expertly play on your emotions, convincing you to help them financially, or giving them personal information they could turn into profits.

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