Why We Fall for Texting Scams (and How to Stop)

Criminals are counting on you to be as human as possible

What to Know

  • Never respond to a scam text. Instead, delete the text and block that number.
  • Protect your phone number like you would a social security or bank account number.
  • Human nature is what's driving you to click that link. The good news? There is a simple trick to help you stop doing it.

Once upon a time, there was a very smart systems engineer who spent part of his workday fixing the problems created when coworkers clicked scam links in their business emails. Then one day he got a text. And he clicked the innocent-looking link.

It took him a few seconds to realize that he'd been scammed. The tip-off came with the multiple pop-up ads that burst onto his phone screen and the inability to escape the website he'd been taken to. A reboot, a quick virus scan, and a few choice words later, my very tech-savvy husband sat, stunned, wondering how he had fallen so easily for a text phishing scam more commonly known as smishing.

It happens to even the most conscientious of us more often than you'd think.

Why We Fall for Texting Scams

A recent survey by Tessian says that we're all so stressed out and distracted these days that even in industries like technology, close to half of the respondents admitted to clicking links in phishing emails. Extrapolate that out to a smartphone texting situation, where we're on the go and more error-prone because we're distracted by the world around us, and you've got a situation ripe for abuse.

They know my phone number! Why not just click that link?

In 2018, for example, scammers conned 125 customers of Fifth Third Bank in Ohio into sharing usernames and passwords in an elaborate smishing scheme that net the criminals $106,000.

More recently, the FTC had to start issuing warnings about contact tracing text scams related to COVID-19. Criminals realized that so many people are worried about catching the virus that they saw a pandemic-sized opportunity in sending a text designed to prey on the most basic of human fears: illness and death.

A sample contact tracing scam text.
Federal Trade Commission 

And that brings us back to the question of why we fall for these kinds of texts. What is it that makes us click a link when we all know we shouldn't?

The answer lies in the psychology of human nature. While we could blame the current pandemic environment and the sudden shift to new ways of working, falling for texting and other types of scams is an inherently human kind of thing to do, really, and it's been happening for years. Here's why:

  1. We all get distracted and stressed out: The boss wants that report by noon. The kids can't get the Zoom classroom to open while we're on a conference call. The dog is barking nonstop. Make the phone stop dinging and just answer the text!
  2. Humans are incessantly curious by nature: The same curiosity that drove humans to create technology is, ultimately, responsible for the curiosity that makes us click that link. Although clearly critical to advancing the human race, Augustìn Fuentes of Princeton University also says that curiosity probably led to the vast majority of human populations going extinct, too. It's not surprising, then, that we would click a link just to see where it takes us.
  3. Almost all of us could use more money: Many of us fall victim to the all-too-common human desire to make our lives easier in some way, usually in the form of pursuing wealth. That translates very simply to the human foible of greed. Leon Seltzer wrote about it in Psychology Today and described this desire, particularly when it involves the pursuit of money, as being driven in part by feelings of distress. After all, who couldn't use money for nothing especially when times are tough?

So here we are: Distracted, stressed out, curious, and a little bit greedy. And when that text pops up from scammers (using a stolen list of names and phone numbers), it seems so innocent to simply click that link and just see if this is something legitimate. Something that might reduce the craziness of the world around us. Something that might make our lives a little easier.

And it seems so... personal because it's on the piece of technology we tote with us night and day. They know my phone number! Why not just click that link?

Sample scam text for a Walmart voucher

Why You Shouldn't Cave In

We all know deep down why we shouldn't click that link but, for the record:

First, it could take you to a very dangerous, fake online place designed to steal your personal and financial information.

Second, that simple click now notifies scammers that they have a 'live one', otherwise known as someone willing to engage. Scammers are nothing if not opportunistic, so now your phone number goes on a new list perhaps internally titled in the scam master manual as Fools Who Will Click Anything.

My husband found himself on that list so the choice words continued for a few weeks as he deleted and blocked a plethora of new scam texts.

For others who click and don't realize where they've landed, the situation gets worse: They enter personal and sensitive information like usernames and passwords or, worse, social security numbers and bank account details.

Cue the Scammer Applause.

How to Stop Yourself From Responding to Scam Texts

Scammers get names and phone numbers by stealing the info from all over the internet. Here's the single most effective trick to avoid a texting scam: Go on the defensive.

Use that trick to help make the following an automatic response for any text you receive:

  • Only respond to texts from people you know.
  • Immediately delete any other text and block the phone number it came from.
  • Never reply to an unknown sender with a STOP reply.

That STOP response just tells the scammers that your phone number is active, so even more texts will be generated to your number in the hopes that you will eventually click a link.

If the text appears to come from an organization you routinely do business with, think very carefully and do some checking with the official website or directly contact the organization before responding.

For example, Fedex doesn't text people about package deliveries so that text you received is a scam. Walmart doesn't text random people about winning gift cards and vouchers, either.

Remember, you are under no obligation to respond to any text, just like you're under no obligation to answer your phone because it rings. At the very least, you are entitled to take your time, thoughtfully review the text, and then delete it; there's no need to act hastily if quick actions are stressful for you.

Finally, resist the urge to give your phone number out to every website or store that wants it. Scammers hack those lists to get your name and phone number; you can stop some of the problem by eliminating the source.

If you start thinking of your phone number as very personal and sensitive information just like your social security or bank account numbers, it will eventually become something that you thoughtfully guard. If you really must give out a phone number, consider using a free internet phone number instead of your real one to guard against criminal activity.

It's just your phone number they're texting. Don't give them the key to your world.