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How to Avoid ‘Wrong Number’ Text Scams

Crooks pretend to contact you accidentally to lure you into a crypto investment or other scheme

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If you own a mobile phone, it’s likely that you’ve received a mysterious text from someone who acts as if they know you. But even though you quickly figure out that the person isn’t a real acquaintance, out of politeness — or curiosity — you might end up interacting with them anyway.

“You’ll get a text message that says, ‘Hey, you coming for dinner tonight?’” says Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network. “And you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong number.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, OK, I’m so sorry to bother you. But I hope you’re having a great day.’ And then you just start an innocent conversation.”

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That’s what perpetrators of fake wrong-number text message scams are counting on. Once they’ve made a connection with an unwary target, they’ll work to become friends with that person, or sometimes even cultivate a remote romantic relationship, embellished with fake photos. It’s all a ruse, designed to get you to relax your defenses so that you’ll be susceptible to a scam, such as a cryptocurrency investment scheme.

Americans already are inundated with unwanted text messages, many of them sent by the automated apps known as bots. Security software company Robokiller reports that 12.2 billion spam texts were sent in March — an average of nearly 44 for each person in the U.S. While it’s unclear how many of those are wrong-number texts, consumer advocates warn that crooks increasingly are turning to the ruse.

How fake wrong-number text scams work

“Scammers are aware that the quickest means of communicating with a victim is by text message, so their efforts naturally follow the societal shift to SMS messaging,” says Josh Planos, a Better Business Bureau spokesperson.

Nofziger once received a text from someone who seemed to be trying to reach a veterinarian to make an urgent appointment for a sick dog. When she responded out of concern, she says, the scammer quickly transitioned to talking about crypto. She’s also received an “Oops, wrong number!” text from a likely scammer pretending to be a woman attempting to contact her yoga instructor.  

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Get guidance you can trust from trained fraud specialists:  Call toll-free 877-908-3360.



How to protect yourself

Be wary of texts from people you don’t know. If you get a text from a stranger, the safest thing to do is simply ignore it and don’t reply. As BBB warns, if you engage with a scammer even briefly, they’ll mark down your phone number as active, which could lead to your receiving even more texts from scammers.

Don’t click on links in text messages. “You run the risk of instantly starting a malware download on a device,” says BBB’s Josh Planos. “On mobile, where the true URL is nearly always shortened, it’s very difficult to know where you’re actually about to be directed once you click the link.”

Block suspicious numbers. When you get texts that you think might be from scammers, block the numbers to prevent them from being used to contact you again.

Guard your personal information. Be careful with disclosing your full name, your home address, your Social Security number, credit card and banking information, and other personal details. Definitely don’t share them with someone you only know from texting.

Such scams often succeed, because criminals are skilled at exploiting their targets’ friendliness. “You would be surprised at how many people who get a wrong number text are amenable to trying to help the person who they think has dialed a wrong number,” says Erin West, a deputy district attorney in Santa Clara County, California, who has organized a coalition of law enforcement officials to combat crypto-related scams.

But what seems like an innocent mistake by the sender actually is the first move in a long con, according to West. Once the scammer gets a person to respond, more messages usually follow. “It goes on over a period of weeks, or even a month, where this scammer will develop a relationship,” she says. “It could be a romantic relationship, or a friendship, or a mentor relationship with the victim.”

Money enters the discussion

Once that bond is formed, experts say, the criminal usually transitions to luring you into a crypto investment scam. The scammers pretend to be living a high-end lifestyle, West notes, “then they say, ‘The reason I’m able to afford this is because I invest in cryptocurrency. Have you ever considered doing that?’”

By that time, they’ve also gleaned plenty of personal details from conversations about your personal finances — whether you own a home, for example, or have relatives who might lend you some cash — that indicate how much of a payday you might provide.

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In crypto schemes, they’ll typically try to convince you to invest in what looks like a legitimate account; it may even indicate that you’re getting a huge return on your investment. In reality, those funds are simply stolen, West says. When you try to withdraw money, she adds, you might be told that you need to pay “taxes” on it first.

Tech-savvy criminals

Though they’re posing as regular people who’ve clumsily hit the wrong keys on their phones, the scammers who run fake wrong-number text scams actually use extremely sophisticated technology to commit their crimes.  

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“It would not surprise me if the initial messages are automated, as they are nearly all identical,” Chester Wisniewski, field chief technology officer for applied research at cybersecurity firm Sophos, says in an email exchange.

When Sean Gallagher, a senior threat researcher for Sophos, received a fake wrong-number text — “Hey Jane are you still in Boston” — last October, he played along so that he could study the scam, which he later described in an article for the Sophos website. “Harley,” the flirtatious young woman supposedly sending the texts, claimed to be the manager of a family-run winery in Canada who owned a Ferrari sports car. Instead, she apparently was just the face of a team of scammers in Cambodia. The criminals had searched the internet for information and photos and fashioned them into a detailed, seemingly plausible life history for the fictitious character, according to Gallagher’s account.

When “Harley” eventually pitched him on a cryptocurrency investment, the Sophos researcher, of course, didn’t go for it.

But others targeted by wrong-number text scammers sometimes end up losing hundreds of thousands of dollars: “This is a scam designed to absolutely clean out every last penny that a victim has,” West says.

More resources

  • The Federal Communications Commission recommends tipping off your wireless service provider by forwarding suspected scam texts to 7726.
  • Get tips from the FCC on how to stop unwanted robocalls and texts.
  • File a fraud report at the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center,
  • Alert others by posting a report at the BBB Scam Tracker.

Contact the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline, 877-908-3360, a free resource with trained fraud specialists who provide support and guidance on what to do next and how to avoid scams in the future. 

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AARP Fraud Watch Network™ Helpline  

Get guidance you can trust from trained fraud specialists:  Call toll-free 877-908-3360.