Hook, Line, and Sinker: Guardio's Guide to Foiling SMS Phishing

November 21st · 11 min read

Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|
Rotem Tal - Senior Cybersecurity Expert |Writer & Editor|

SMS phishing - Tactics for digital safety

Imagine going about your day, juggling work and personal tasks, when an unexpected text message pops up on your phone. That’s exactly what happened to Max, an elementary school teacher, who one morning received an SMS from FedEx regarding a delay in his shipment of inflatable flamingo pool floats. The text prompted him to complete his delivery preferences, a request that seemed odd given Max had already provided all the shipping details. Caught up in preparing lesson plans for an upcoming science fair, he clicked on what looked like a harmless link in the SMS to update his delivery information. Little did he know that at that moment, he had just fallen prey to a smishing scheme (an SMS phishing attack), leading him to a fake website that perfectly mimicked FedEx's official site, where he was duped into re-entering his credit card information.

Max got scammed or, in other words, fell for an SMS phishing attack. If Max had Guardio’s browser and mobile phishing alerts active, this smishing attempt wouldn’t have been an issue. Guardio automatically filters these scammy messages into spam or trash folders. And, if by chance he'd still clicked the link in the text, Guardio would have immediately blocked access to the phishing site, preventing his personal and financial information from being stolen. Sadly, Max's case is not unique and SMS phishing scams are more common than you think.

Last year, SMS phishing attacks (smishing) cost Americans over $326 million

In this article, we'll navigate the murky waters of smishing (SMS phishing), explain what it is, and learn the mechanics of how it works. More importantly, we’ll give you some concrete tips to sidestep these traps and explore how a cybersecurity app for text messages like Guardio can help you avoid smishing and other online threats altogether. Let’s go!

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Fake FEDEX text Source: ABC News

Smishing explained

"Smishing" is a type of phishing attack executed through SMS (Short Message Service) AKA text messages. The term is a play on the words "SMS" and "phishing" combining the two. In smishing attacks, scammers send out text messages and use social engineering tricks to manipulate people into divulging personal information, like passwords, bank account numbers, or Social Security numbers. These messages often masquerade as legitimate sources, like banks, government agencies, or well-known service providers, and typically instill a sense of urgency or fear to prompt immediate action. Social engineering always involves some psychological tricks. here are some of them

  • Urgent security alerts: Leveraging the fear of financial loss or identity theft, these messages claim there's a problem with your account or personal information. Aiming to rush you into panicking and clicking a link or providing sensitive information immediately.

  • Prize or contest wins: Who doesn't like winning a prize? I know I do! That’s exactly what scammers are aiming to appeal to: people’s inherent excitement and greed, these texts falsely inform you of winning a contest or prize and ask for personal information or payment to claim it.

  • Fraudulent account problems: Similar to security alerts, these tactics aim to exploit the trust we have in institutions. The alerts suggest that there are issues with your bank or online accounts, prompting you to verify your details via a malicious link. It’s important to remember that no bank will text you to ask for your account information or PIN. NEVER text back your financial deets!

The links in these messages typically lead to fake websites designed to mimic legitimate ones, where you are prompted to enter personal information, which is then stolen by cybercriminals.

Mobile phone with scam alert warning

How does SMS phishing (smishing) work?

Smishing scams aren't just in your texts; they show up in all kinds of messaging apps, and they're extremely sneaky. This is because the effectiveness of smishing lies not only in social engineering but also in capitalizing on the inherent trust people have in text messages. The personal nature of mobile phones make these scams seem more credible and urgent.

We often think texts are safer than they are. Most people have grown skeptical of weird emails that just say, "Hey, click here!" But when it comes to our phones, it's a different story. We feel they're super secure, but even the best smartphones can't always stop smishing on their own.

That’s where secure mobile messaging solutions like Guardio come in handy. Guardio’s app filters out spam by identifying malicious text messages, giving you a heads-up if something phishy (pun intended) is going on. Even if you accidentally click on a dodgy link in a message, Guardio jumps into action and blocks the malicious site before it can do any damage.

Remember, no phone, Android or iPhone, is completely immune to these scams. A false sense of security can make us easy targets, regardless of our device.

Different types of smishing attacks

Smishing attacks might change their look, but deep down, they all play the same tricks. The scammers behind them use all sorts of fake stories and identities to keep these text message scams feeling new and hard to spot. So it's pretty much impossible to list every type of smishing scam out there because the scams keep evolving and changing up their game.

But, if we break down a few of the common smishing scams, you'll start seeing a pattern and get the hang of spotting these shady texts before they can cause any harm. Here are a few common schemes scammers use:

  • Delivery scam: Similar to Max’s story, these smishing attacks often masquerade as messages from delivery services like UPS, DHL or FedEx, pinging you about issues like unpaid fees or delivery problems. They’ll typically entice you to click on a link to update personal details or pay additional charges. Once you do… the scammers steal that info and use it for malicious purposes.

  • Bank fraud alert: This scam involves texts impersonating banks, warning of suspicious activity on your account. The scam aims to make you feel like something bad has happened and that you need to click a link to 'verify' your identity or secure your account in order to fix it. Once you do, you’ve basically given your login details to them. As a result, scammers can go on wild shopping sprees with your money, open credit cards in your name, and potentially steal your identity.

  • Tax scam: Here, scammers pretend to be from the IRS or other tax authorities, discussing refunds or outstanding taxes. They aim to get you to provide sensitive information or interact with a phishing link under the false pretense of resolving tax issues. Similar to the bank fraud scheme, scammers can steal your cash, Social Security Number, and your identity. Yikes.

  • Contest winner: These messages falsely inform you of winning a contest, trying to capitalize on the excitement of an unexpected win. But here’s the kicker, you need to either pay a fee or give out your personal information to claim the prize. Once you do, the only prize you get is scammers stealing your cash and personal information.

  • Romance scam: Originating in dating apps and progressing to texting, these scams involve building a romantic relationship, eventually leading to requests for money due to a fabricated crisis. These are usually long plays, meaning the scammer builds trust with the victim, at times conversing with them for months and even years. The catch is that once they build that trust, they squeeze the victim for all they’ve got.

  • Government impersonation: Very similar to the tax scheme, these smishing attempts pose as communications from government agencies. They use intimidation tactics like legal threats to coerce you into providing personal information or making payments.

This is how you can fall for smishing attacks

Smishing is easier to fall for than you think, take James’ case, for example. James, a software engineer, had just finished a hectic day when his phone beeped with a text message, It was from Bank of America, alerting him of a suspicious login attempt on his account from a new device. The message read "URGENT: Suspicious login attempt on your Bank of America account. If this wasn't you, secure your account immediately: press this link".

James was understandably worried about the security of his account. Trusting the message and his instincts, he clicked the link, which led to a website mirroring his bank's login page. Without thinking twice, he entered his credentials, unknowingly giving scammers access to his account. Moments later, he received notifications about multiple unauthorized transactions emptying his account.

James had experienced a smishing attack, resulting in a tremendous financial loss. It took him months of stressful communications with Bank of America to rectify the situation. The incident, however, left deeper scars. James, who always prided himself on being tech-savvy and alert to online scams, found his confidence shaken. He struggled to come to terms with how easily he had been deceived. Unfortunately, James’ case is not unique, and the more we rely on our mobile phones, the more susceptible we are to smishing attacks. The thing is, if James, a software engineer, can fall for this type of scam, so can anyone else.

Safe texting practices: How to prevent smishing attacks

  • Be skeptical of unsolicited messages: Exercise caution with unexpected texts, especially those containing links. If a message appears to be from a known entity but is unsolicited, it's better to do your due diligence before giving away any sensitive information.

  • Verify the source: Instead of using the contact details provided in the message, reach out to the organization through their official channels to confirm the message's authenticity.

  • Look for red flags: Keep an eye out for weird URLs, poor spelling and grammar, as well as urgent requests for personal information, which are common indicators of smishing.

  • Avoid sharing personal Information: It's crucial to protect your sensitive data. Never share details like your Social Security number or banking information via text messages.

  • Keep your device updated: Regular updates to your phone’s operating system and applications help strengthen security defenses against smishing attacks.

  • Report suspicious messages: Inform your mobile carrier or relevant authorities about any smishing attempts to help fight this form of fraud.

  • Use mobile scam security: Protect your mobile device with reliable security software like Guardio’s SMS phishing protection that detects and blocks potential threats.

Guardio actively scans incoming messages for signs of phishing or fraud and flags suspicious links and content, alerting you of potential threats before you even click.

A simple text can cost you more than you think

With Guardio, scam texts are filtered, and sketchy links blocked making sure you're protected!

Smart smishing defense techniques

Smishing is only a threat if you take the bait—clicking links or dishing out your personal details. Keep an eye out for these warning signs:

Do's and Don'ts  of SMS phishing
  • Messages dangling quick cash or prizes or those tempting coupon codes.

  • Remember, no bank will text you for your account info or PIN. Don’t text back your financial deets!

  • A text from an unknown number? Best to leave it unanswered. If the sender's number looks oddly short, it's probably spam.

  • Storing banking info on your phone? That’s a buffet for smishers. Try to avoid it.

  • Got a smishy message? Pass it to your telecom so they can snoop around. The FCC also digs into these scams.

Blocking smishing before it strikes

Smishing attacks are everywhere, so blocking them needs a mix of smart tech, savvy people, and some good old common sense. Here’s how:

Tech Tricks:

  • SMS filters - Phones and carriers often have tools to sniff out and block weird texts.

  • Multifactor authentication - Even if smishers snag some of your info, MFA adds an extra wall of security.

  • Anti-phishing apps: Having a security app like Guardio’s smishing protection can easily tackle this problem. Guardio filters out dodgy smishing texts and blocks malicious links, so even if you accidentally click on one in a text, you're protected.

Organization tactics: In an organization, it's vital to keep management and the team informed about possible cybersecurity risks. Here are some tips on how to keep the team in the know:

  • Stay cyber smart: Regular cybersecurity lessons can turn folks into smishing-spotting ninjas.

  • Clear report paths: Make sure everyone knows how to report smishing.

  • Practice drills: Send fake smish texts to test and teach your team.

  • Update, update, update: Keep your software fresh to fight off new threats.

  • Installing security software: Making sure your team has browser and mobile protection like Guardio already puts you ahead of the curb. Guardio makes sure no one goes on sketchy sites, presses on dodgy links, and keeps everyone’s email and text message inbox secure.

The bottom line

Today there’s no denying that mobile phones are central to our daily interactions. This makes the threat of smishing attacks, as shown through Max and James's stories, alarmingly high. These scams exploit our quick-paced digital habits and our inherent trust in text communication. From the convincingly camouflaged delivery scams to the sinister financial frauds, the complexity of these attacks makes them challenging to recognize and respond to correctly.

When it comes to SMS phishing, the lessons are straightforward: treat unsolicited messages with skepticism, independently verify sources, and be alert for the common signs of smishing. Boosting your device protection with regular updates and installing mobile scam security apps like Guardio are also essential in strengthening your defense against these cyber threats. Don't let the next smishing attack catch you unprepared. Act now. Explore the protective measures offered by Guardio and step into a more secure digital world. Your digital safety is invaluable; let Guardio’s SMS security solutions be your mobile sidekick.

Keep your texts safe & scam-free

Guardio keeps your SMS messages secure with spam filtering and scam blocking.

Don’t take our word for it, this is what our users have to say

“As someone who has been scammed, I feel a great sense of relief knowing there is somebody who has my back.” Ralf Genz

“They alert me when anything is fishy. And I feel like I'm always safe. Thank you.” Nancy Freyberg

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