Cell Phone Scam Messages: Growing Threats

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In the space of less than a decade, text messaging has transformed from something of a novelty into a ubiquitous and essential facet of modern culture. Widely available even in the world’s poorest areas, cell phones are arguably the planet’s most democratic form of communication, surpassing oft-restricted broadband Internet service in most places. Unfortunately, many of the billions of text messages sent worldwide each day are malicious in nature. If you’re unfamiliar with the recent upsurge in SMS scams and threats, take a moment to educate yourself on the subject.

Cell Phone Scam Messages

The Hitman Setup

In recent months, thousands of innocent Australians have received SMS messages threatening death in lieu of an immediate electronic payment of $5,000. The text uses common Internet shorthand, suggesting that it’s written by scammers familiar with English-language culture and idioms, and invites further contact with an e-mail address.

There’s no data yet as to how many unsuspecting recipients have taken the bait, responded via e-mail and wired untold sums of money abroad, but the fact that multiple Australian police agencies have felt the need to get involves suggests that the scam is hitting home. A public service announcement from the Queensland Police implored recipients to delete the message and ignore its demands, while the South Australian police issued a statement noting the logistical impossibility of a single SMS sender carrying out such a threat on thousands of geographically-dispersed individuals.

Insidious Branding

Other SMS scams are less frightening, if not less fraudulent. Many scammers have taken to mimicking representatives of well-known brands, like Nokia and Coca-Cola, and offering text recipients outlandish monetary and in-kind prizes in exchange for their personal information. Thus far, just about every company cited in these messages has denied any connection with the sender or knowledge of the situation.

The Sporting Connection

SMS scammers seem to have a good handle on what gets their targets going. Many “brand-name” scams strategically target fans of specific sports teams, for example, and major international sporting events like the Olympic Games and World Cup can spawn a whole scamming sub-industry. Be especially concerned by solicitations that try to play up your home-country allegiance before these events in order to coax personal information out of you.

A Novel Problem

SMS scams are so new that many local law enforcement agencies appear to be operating on a steep learning curve. The case of the $5,000 death threat, for example, prompted several Australian states to ask affected citizens to fill out detailed questionnaires about their individual experiences with and responses to the threat. SMS scams are also becoming a major resource drain. Faced with a high volume of emergency calls from concerned recipients, these same local law enforcement agencies have had to throw open their doors potentially to thousands of victims, over-staffing their anti-fraud tip lines and promising support to anyone who asks for it.

If you receive a dubious text message from an unknown source that either directly threatens you or offers some outlandish compensation in exchange for your personal information, don’t take the bait. Unless you have reason to fear for your safety, don’t bother your local law enforcement agencies with it either. Simply forward it to the proper consumer-protection bureau and rest easy with the knowledge that you’ll probably be one of the last to receive it.

Kristen Everett is a freelance writer in San Francisco. She writes for mobilephones.org.uk where you can research the most current technology for cell phones.