The Premium SMS Scam: What It Is And How To Protect Yourself From It

Getting unsolicited texts from scammers? Here's what you need to know

Masked person using a fishing pole to grab a folder on a smartphone - Premium SMS Scam

Lifewire / Theresa Chiechi

Text-messaging scams persist, despite efforts to quash them. People who receive such texts typically don't know where they came from, how they got started, or how to block unwanted text messages from premium SMS scammers. Here's what you need to know.

What Is The Premium SMS Scam?

The Premium SMS Scam involves unsolicited text messages to participate in competitions or trivia games that trick you into paying high call or text rates. These scams vary in detail and degree of swindle, but they generally follow similar progressions.

Here's a typical example. You receive a text message from some strange three- or five-digit number. It says something like, "Trivia Master: Welcome to your Trivia Master Alerts! 3xmsgs/wk billed @$9.99/mo Reply HELP or call STOP to cancel Msg&Data Rates May Apply."

The problem is that you don't remember signing up for this Trivia Master (or whatever it says its name is), and you certainly don't want to end up with a bill for $9.99 a month.

How Does The Premium SMS Scam Work?

These aren't run-of-the-mill annoying spam messages. Each time you receive a premium SMS message, you are charged an extra fee, a premium, on your cellphone bill. And, the scammer pockets that fee.

Premium SMS message schemes aren't always nefarious. Some are legitimate ways for content providers to make money. An advertiser somehow convinces people to sign up to receive content, such as a joke of the day, trivia question, or something else through text messages at prescribed intervals, with a premium charge automatically added to the subscriber's cellphone bill.

The subscriber is usually charged a fee, typically $9.99 or so, for this content. This charge continues from month to month until the subscriber sends a text reply of STOP (or similar) to the premium SMS message content provider or calls the cellular provider to have the charges stopped.

Is a joke of the day or trivia fact worth nearly $10 a month? That's a matter of opinion, but generally, no. Most people don't enjoy spending money on things that can be found for free with a simple online search.

How Do The Premium SMS Scammers Find Victims?

While premium SMS messages can be legitimate, the system is being abused by scammers and fraudsters. Many people report being signed up for these services without their consent. All someone has to do is go to a website, type a phone number, click a consent box, and press Submit. Credit card information isn't needed. In many cases, the sites don't require verification or double opt-in; practices the law and good marketing require advertisers to use.

How Do I Avoid Getting Involved In This Scam?

Some people who are victimized by SMS scammers send a text message with the text STOP to the number sending the premium text messages. This doesn't remove the charges you've already received, but it can prevent future monthly charges.

Attempting to handle the problem in this way can make it worse. Some victims report receiving bogus texts from other premium SMS vendors after replying with STOP. This may be because replying directly to the offending sender verifies the subscriber number is active and therefore ripe to exploit.

I’m Already a Victim. What Should I Do?

If you've fallen victim to a premium text message scam, the best way to handle it is to call your phone service provider. Explain what's happening. Most companies will remove these unauthorized charges from your bill. Also, ask your provider to block all future premium SMS messages for all the numbers on your account.

How Do I Avoid Being Targeted For The SMS Scam? 

There are a few steps you can take to avoid being targeted by SMS scammers in the future.

Turn on Premium SMS Message Blocking

Many cell service providers, such as Verizon, allow users to block all premium SMS messages. Verizon allows you to log into your account and turn on the blocking feature via the company's website, or call customer service and have them enable it for you.

This means you won't be able to subscribe to the Joke of the Day for $10 a month even if you want to (unless you turn premium SMS blocking off). That's a small sacrifice, though, for protection against future unauthorized charges from premium SMS scammers.

Add Your Number to the Do Not Call/Do Not Solicit Registry

If you live in the U.S., add your number to the U.S. Do Not Call Registry. While not as effective as blocking premium messages from reaching your phone, this step may help you avoid some text-based advertising spam.