How to stop those annoying spam texts

Spam text illustration. (iStock/Washington Post illustration) (WaPo)
·7 min read

Spam texts are a strange mix of predatory, nonsensical and too good to be true. I get a dozen texts every week filled with weight-loss psychobabble, while my husband is dogged by technically-legal-but-still-not-awesome political outreach and fearmongering.

First, the bad news: These texts aren't going away any time soon. A report from spam-blocking app RoboKiller found that spam texts increased 58 percent in 2021 from 2020. That's a big jump, and it's likely because scammers are realizing that people are too familiar with phone scams to fall for them at the same rate, RoboKiller vice president Giulia Porter said.

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Now, the good news: You can take steps to receive fewer spam texts, and if you do fall for one, there are ways to pump the breaks before scammers further mess with your accounts, devices or wallet.

Q: I have an iPhone and get unwanted solicitations by texts. How can I block them?

A: You aren't alone. Other readers have written in with concerns about scammy and spammy texts.

Like you describe, some spam texts are obvious solicitation, asking if you want to buy something or sign up for a service. Others are more insidious. Our readers say they're bombarded with romance scams, fake updates from Amazon and phony communications from banks.

When trying to tell the difference between legitimate texts and spam, Porter says she has an unlikely mantra: "Scammers are people too."

Scammers read the news, use online services and put their pants on one leg at a time, she said. They tailor their scams based on current events - think of the spike in covid vaccine-related scams this past year. They also know how to manipulate you by making you feel sad, scared or embarrassed.

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- It's out of the blue: Your bank and other legitimate businesses generally won't use texts as their primary form of communication. If your "bank" texts you asking for some action on your part, check for an accompanying email and call the customer service number listed on the bank's website to confirm.

- It doesn't quite make sense. Trust your gut on this one. If the message is riddled with spelling and grammatical errors or seems out of line, it's likely a scam.

- It contains a funky URL. Spam texts often contain a link. Sometimes, that link appears to lead to a legitimate site, but on closer inspection, a critical word or letter is missing or misspelled. For example, "amazon.com" could become something like "amzon.com." Strings of numbers and symbols in a link can also be a bad sign, Porter said.

- They're mean. If you reply to a spam text or open a link, scammers may follow up by calling you. If you ever get a call from a so-called customer service representative who makes you feel embarrassed or stupid, hang up. It's a classic con-artist tactic to talk down to people until they bend to your suggestions, according to Kurt Baumgartner, principal security researcher at cybersecurity company Kaspersky. In the same vein, it's usually a red flag if a customer service rep asks to remotely control your computer.

- Don't open links. Links in spam texts usually usher you to the next step in the scam, like entering a username and password. Clicking a link also signals to the scammer that you're interested, and they may follow up with more texts or calls.

- Don't reply "STOP." Legitimate businesses are required by law to stop texting you if you opt out, usually by texting "stop." But scammers don't care. Replying "stop" just lets them know there's a real person on the other end of their outreach.

- Whenever possible, don't share your phone number. I want that 15% discount at ASOS as much as the next girl, but once you share your phone number with a company, it's hard to know where it goes afterward. The fast-and-loose data market makes it easy for scammers to get their hands on names and phone numbers. To combat that, you can always provide burner phone numbers generated by an app like Google Voice or DoNotPay. Take a minute to make your phone number private on your Facebook account, Porter suggested, and Google your number to see where else it may be publicly listed.

Keep in mind, though, that even if you guard your phone number with your life, scammers still punch in numbers randomly.

- Block the sender. Blocking each spam sender is an annoying game of whack-a-mole, but at least it keeps them from texting you again. On an iPhone, open the conversation (without clicking any links in their message) and tap the phone number at the top of the chat. Then, tap "info," and select "block this caller" at the bottom of the screen.

On my Android phone, I opened the conversation, tapped the three little dots at the top right, selected "details," then tapped "block & report spam."

- Turn on filtering on your device. On an iPhone, go to Settings and scroll down to see all your apps. Select Messages, scroll to "unknown & spam" and flip on "filter unknown senders." (The little slider will turn green.) Be aware: This will send all messages from unknown numbers, even new friends, into a separate folder. To view them, open the Messages app, tap "filters" in the upper left corner and select "unknown senders."

On my Android device, I opened the Messages app, tapped the three dots inside the search bar, then went to Settings -> Spam protection -> Enable spam protection. (The little slider will turn blue.)

- Download a spam-protection app. RoboKiller's app TextKiller is $29.99 a year or $3.99 a month. Another option is Nomorobo, which is $19.99 a year or $1.99 a month. (TextKiller is available only on Apple devices. Nomorobo has an Android version, but the reviews are low compared to its iOS version.)

- Report spam texts to your carrier. If you've got the time and desire, copy the offending text by holding your fingers down on it until the "copy" option pops up (being careful not to tap any links). Then paste the text into a new message and send it to the number 7726 (it spells "spam"). When prompted, copy and paste the scammer's number and send that, as well.

- Report scams to the Federal Trade Commission. This won't reduce scam texts in the moment, but it helps the FTC keep tabs on shady characters. Here's the form to report fraudsters who are calling or texting you. You can also report spam texts to the Federal Communications Commission here.

- Put your phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry. Because why not?

If you fall for a text scam, it's not the end of the world, Baumgartner said. Most scams involve multiple steps, so clicking one link is unlikely to lead to your downfall, he noted.

Nevertheless, engaging with a text scam makes you vulnerable, so if you talked on the phone with a bad actor or provided any personal information on a fake log-in page, it's good to call your bank and credit card providers and let them know what happened. They can turn on alerts and keep an eye out for suspicious account activity.

Other helpful steps are resetting your online passwords (I highly recommend a password manager) and restoring your device to a backed-up version from before the scammer got access. That second tip may require some IT help - we recommend finding a local trusted computer shop with good reviews on Google or Yelp that offers tech support and house calls.

          

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