Is this text, or call, or email, a scam?

Con artists sometimes even know our names or other information

Jonas Lee | Unsplash.com

Technology has made scams through robocalls, texts, emails and social media messages more difficult to identify.

Bad guys can and do spoof Caller ID to make it look like a call is coming from a major bank, or Amazon, or the IRS. Bad guys also construct scam text messages to make them appear they’re coming from a company you do business with, or that there’s some urgent issue you need to address. And emailers can change the “sender” to make it look like it’s coming from any entity – complete with an official company logo – or any individual, even a relative, a co-worker or someone from your church.

What makes all of this worse is that con artists who contact you may even know your name or other personal information, courtesy of the avalanche of data breaches we’ve had in the last 15 years.

So how do you identify a scam text, call or email? You really can’t, with certainty.

You should assume that any request is a scam if it’s unexpected, and if you’re asked to provide or confirm any information, or to pay money or buy gift cards.

Scam texts, calls and emails also often say you must act immediately – right now. (They’re hoping you don’t take a minute to think about it or call someone.)

What to do to protect yourself from scam texts, calls or emails:

  1. Don’t respond to anyone you weren’t expecting to hear from. Period. If you think a call, text, email or letter could be legitimate, call the relative or company or government office using contact information you look up independently and know is correct. Call the number on the back of your bank card, or the number on your internet provider’s most recent statement. Or log into your credit card or Amazon account. Said another way: Assume every unexpected call or text or email has bad intentions.
  2. Never send gift card numbers or money through Zelle, Venmo, CashApp or another instant payment option for something you weren’t expecting to pay. In general, you shouldn’t wire money or send money through Zelle, Venmo, etc. to anyone who isn’t a close relative or friend. Don’t be fooled by an urgent request to supposedly pay back taxes or bail your grandchild out of jail or avoid a utility shutoff or claim your sweepstakes prize. Real companies and government offices don’t ask for gift cards or P2P payments. Remember this: Gift cards are for gifts.

How to report scams:

  1. Report scam robocalls or texts to the Federal Communications Commission. 
  2. Report unwanted or scam texts to your cell phone provider by forwarding the message to 7726 (“SPAM”).
  3. Report Do Not Call List violations to the Federal Trade Commission. (Or sign up if you haven’t.)
  4. You can also report the incident to the FTC. You should definitely do this if you’ve actually been defrauded. Call the FTC at 1-877-382-4357 (877-FTC-HELP) or file a complaint online.
  5. You should also report illegal or unwanted calls to your state attorney general. See the contact information for the attorneys general in every state here. 

For other tips on avoiding imposter scams, see this guide.

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Authors

Teresa Murray

Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.