SMS spam or a genuine gift from Amazon, Apple or McDonald's?

person holding phone with uncertainty around whether text messages are spam
Corey McAuley
Corey McAuley
6 May 2024
5 min read

SMS spam has become an annoyance that generally gets buried in a sea of marketing messages. With billions of pieces of spam sent out every day, it remains a tool that criminals utilize to spread both scams and malware – and it’s often difficult to tell the difference between a genuine or malicious text message. The goal of spam is generally financial gain, with tactics ranging from attempts to sell products and services to mass cyber crime campaigns spreading smishing and phishing scams or malware.

In this article, we look at different examples of SMS spam and explore how government authorities and telecommunication companies are fighting back against these text message scammers.

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'Free gift' SMS spam

'Free gift' scams delivered through email or SMS spam have proven popular with scammers. These scams weaponize the names of popular brands, including Amazon, Apple, McDonald’s, Costco and major airlines, to lure users to a website with the promise of free gift cards and other prizes.

All the victims must do is complete a survey and offer information, which may include personal data and credit card details. The stolen data is then used by criminals for financial gain via fraud or identity theft.

If you receive a text message offering you something for free, the odds are that it’s a scam. If you’re unsure, don’t click the link in the text message – instead, log into your online account or check the official website or app for the retailer and see if the gift is offered there. If it’s legitimate, it should be.

'Hi Mum' smishing scam

The 'Hi Mum' scam is an example of smishing. The attack begins with a WhatsApp message from an unknown phone number starting with the words 'Hi Mum' or 'Hi Dad'. However, in these cases the sender is a scammer posing as the recipient’s adult child.

The scammer tells the recipient that the child’s phone has broken and that this is their new phone number. The attacker then asks for money to pay an urgent bill or to buy a new phone; they say they need money because they can’t access their bank without the old phone, or some other explanation.

It can be difficult for parents to think rationally when their child needs help. This is what the scammers were aiming for. And they succeed: many victims from the UK, Australia, and New Zealand have reportedly lost thousands of pounds or dollars to this type of scam. If you ever receive a message like this, call the number you have saved for your child or send them a message on social media to check if the message is real. Don’t send money to people contacting you from unknown numbers.

'Financial aid' cost of living scams

The toll of economic instability and the cost-of-living crisis has left people around the world vulnerable to scams – but even more so when financial aid is falsely offered. These exploitative smishing campaigns may also offer fake investment opportunities, use fake celebrity endorsements, and sometimes even see criminals impersonating government officials and banks to gain trust with their victims.

The golden rule is this: if it seems like it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Before clicking any links, go directly to your government’s website or log into your bank account to see if these opportunities are available there. If the SMS is the only source of this information, it’s most likely a scam.

How to protect yourself from scammers

  • Stop any transaction as soon as you feel it’s suspicious. If you’ve already made a payment, contact the payment provider to cancel or contest the payment. Credit card companies make it relatively easy to reverse payments – a good reason to use credit cards for online payments.

  • Internet security that includes browsing protection, such as F-Secure Total, will save you from future scams by blocking malicious sites.

  • Visit our Scam Protection Hub to learn how to spot and protect yourself from online scams.

The future of spam prevention

With SMS spam ever increasing in frequency, it’s up to global telecommunication companies and government authorities to find solutions that reduce – or eradicate – these pesky text messages.

Singapore’s scam taskforces

In Singapore, the Ministry of Home Affairs has set up an Inter-Ministry Committee on Scams (IMCS) that is spearheading new initiatives designed to prevent and combat scam text messages.

Working collaboratively with telecom companies and banks, the IMCS has been securing communication infrastructure with measures such as blocking spoofed numbers and cracking down on organizations to register their Sender IDs with the SMS Sender ID Registry (SSIR).

A dedicated Anti-Scam Command has also been set up in the Singapore Police Force to investigate and reduce scam-related crime. The team spends time on social media and communication apps to discover up and coming trends and devise preventative strategies that protect the public from emerging scams.

Finland’s SMS ID system

SMS spammers often use the names of companies and organizations, such as banks and delivery services, via spoofing to lure victims into clicking links and making payments.

To combat this, the Finnish Transport and Communications Agency, known as Traficom, has developed a system that protects the identity of companies by preventing their brand name from being spoofed. Now, only one entity can send messages using that ID – the genuine company.

It should be noted that when a company registers their sender ID, it takes three months to take effect – meaning they are still susceptible to being faked during that time. You can check a company’s status on Traficom’s list of Registered SMS Sender IDs. If a company isn’t on the list, that doesn’t automatically mean a text message from them is a scam, but you should treat it with healthy suspicion.


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