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Bank Impersonation Is the Most Common Text Scam: What You Need to Know

It can be hard to tell whether you’re being contacted by your bank or a criminal


spinner image Bank impersonation texts are the number one type of fraud texts.
elenaleonova / Getty Images

Last year, Pittsburgh resident Molly Sinclair, 54, suddenly received ominous-sounding messages from two local banks where she’s a customer. One warned her that her account had been locked because of unusual activity, and instructed her to click a link in order to verify the transaction. The other simply said that her account was locked, and gave her a phone number to call.

Skeptical but alarmed, Sinclair got on her laptop, and went to the website for one of her banks, just to reassure herself that her money was still there. “The first thing that popped up on its homepage was a scam alert,” she recalls. It warned about fake text notifications of the sort she had received. ​She’s glad she didn’t click on that link or make that call.

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You’ve probably received these messages, too: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently reported that text messages pretending to be from banks are up nearly twentyfold since 2019. They’re now the most common type of text-based fraud, costing victims a median loss of $3,000 each. (These crimes are notoriously underreported, however, so the number of people affected and the amount lost are probably far higher.)

If you have signed up for text notifications from your bank, it’s easy to mistake the scam texts for legitimate bank alerts. After all — as we all know — fraud is rampant.

“People are accustomed to getting texts from banks to prevent fraud,” notes Emma Fletcher, a senior data researcher in the Division of Consumer Response and Operations for the FTC. “There’s a certain irony that scammers are now using this to perpetrate fraud.”

How bank impersonation scams work

Bank-impersonation scammers pretend to be security departments at banks, and send out text messages, emails and robocalls that supposedly warn people of unusual, possibly fraudulent activity that requires immediate action. In reality, they’re trying to get people to provide account numbers and login information, or to transfer their funds for safekeeping into accounts controlled by the criminals. In the process, they also may steal targets’ personal information, which can be used to commit identity fraud.

Some fake bank notification texts warn that an account has been locked, while others ask the target to verify a large purchase that supposedly has been made at a store. “If they reply ‘no,’ which many people might do reflexively, they’ll get a call from someone claiming to be the bank,” Fletcher says.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

Fake bank messages try to create a sense of urgency

Typically, a scammer on the phone will try to alarm the people being targeted, saying that they must take immediate action to protect their accounts from being emptied.

“They will be walked through a series of steps that they’ve been led to believe will cause the fraudulent purchase or transfer to be reversed,” Fletcher says. But the money is actually being transferred into the criminal’s account.

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Sometimes, the scammers will guide targets to sophisticated replicas of actual bank websites.

“Other than a different web address, you really can’t tell that they’re fake,” explains Aaron Foss, founder of Nomorobo, a security company that specializes in blocking robocalls and spam text messages for its clients. “They use fear to get people to quickly tap on the link and not look at the URL too closely.”

The object in such cases is to steal victims’ login credentials and other personal data.

Bank impersonation robocalls, meanwhile, aim to connect victims to a live scammer, who then carries out the scams noted above. Or sometimes, the criminal on the phone will tell victims to download remote-access software, which people don’t realize will actually give the scammers access to their computers, Foss says.

How to protect yourself against bank text scams

Some tips from the American Bankers Association and other sources include:

  • Never click on links on texts or emails in a text or email notification. Instead, go to the bank’s website (even if you’ve signed up for text alerts). Use the URL listed on your statements or that you’ve previously bookmarked, and check for any alerts on your account.
  • If you get a robocall or call from someone claiming to be from your bank, hang up. Then contact your bank in a way you know to be legitimate, either online or by calling the phone number on your statement or debit card.
  • Never provide account data or personal info.  As ABA's Banksneveraskthat.com website explains, “our bank will never ask for your PIN, password, or one-time login code in a text message. If you receive a text message asking for personal information, it’s a scam.” 
  • Don’t rely on caller ID. Scammers can use technological tricks to display actual bank phone numbers or even the name of the bank.
  • Be wary of a message or caller insisting that you take immediate action. Scammers try to put you under pressure to act quickly, to make it more difficult for you to think clearly.
  • When in doubt, seek assistance. If you’re unsure what to do in response to what appears to be an alert from your bank, stop and ask a trusted person — a friend, family member or coworker — to help you.

Reporting bank impersonation scams

If you experience a bank impersonation attempt, notify your financial institution of the occurrence. Include a screenshot of the text. If you lose money to this scam, contact your bank immediately — they may be able to halt the transaction.  

File a police report. The documentation may be of value if there is some means of recouping your loss; for example, some home insurance providers offer fraud loss protection.

File reports with the federal government. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center use fraud reports to target their investigations; the more information they have, the better they can identify patterns, link cases and ultimately catch the criminals. Contact the FTC at reportfraud.ftc.gov and the FBI at IC3.gov.  

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spinner image cartoon of a woman holding a megaphone

Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.