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Scam Alert: The Dish on Smishing: Stealing Your Identity With Text Messages

Thanks to a con that has spread like wildfire in recent months, there’s new concern for anyone with a bank account and a telephone number.

The new trickery is called “smishing.” It’s a cousin of “phishing,” an attempt to get personal information via e-mails or other electronic communication. “Smishing” relies on wireless phones for identity theft by using a communications protocol called SMS (short message service), which sends text messages.

Across the country, people have been getting cellphone text messages purporting to be from their banks or credits unions—saying that their ATM cards, credit cards or bank accounts have been closed or frozen. The bogus messages then instruct recipients to call a toll-free number to settle the problem.

Similar prerecorded messages are also sent to traditional telephone “land lines.”

These phony messages purport to be from one of several hundreds banks and are sent to people across the country. When calling the suggested phone number, respondents are instructed—again, usually by prerecorded prompts—to provide their account numbers and other personal information, paving the way for identity theft.

“We had instances where customers fell for it,” says Doug Johnson, senior policy analyst for the American Bankers Association. “I don’t have a number on how many victims, but this scam is prevalent.”

Your protection:

Do not respond if you get a text message or phone call allegedly sent by your bank. Scammers use programs that allow them to send text and prerecorded messages to random phone numbers.

Do not rely on your caller ID. Scammers can use “spoofing” software or voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephone numbers to falsely publish the name and phone number of your bank on your caller ID, making these calls appear to be authentic. Instead, telephone your bank or credit card issuer directly—look up the number yourself—if you are worried about your accounts.

If you detect any suspicious activity on any of your accounts, immediately contact your bank or credit card issuer. Then, several weeks later, check your credit history, the only website that under federal law provides all citizens with three free credit reports a year (although credit scores cost extra).

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).

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