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.
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.