Courts & Crime

You may already be a loser: Text message scams spread

Text this message: Your cell phone could be sending you the latest identity theft scam.

At least two Sacramento-area residents have recently been targeted by text messages that promised $200 gift cards or alerted them to bank account problems.

In both cases, the texts were nothing more than tech-savvy attempts to steal financial information, say consumer experts.

"It's the first time they've used texting (here)," said Barry Goggin, president of the West Sacramento-based Better Business Bureau of Northeast California. "Traditional 'phishing' for financial information has been by telephone or e-mails. Now, crooks have found a way to use text messages."

It's even got a name: "smishing." That's a blending of "phishing" and SMS, the acronym for short message service, or texting.

Shirena Parker, a 20-year-old newlywed in Elk Grove, said she fell for it when she picked up a text message on her Sprint phone last Friday.

"Hi, Shirena," she says it read. "Congratulations. You've won a $200 Wal-Mart card."

Excited by the news, she immediately called the 877 number listed and was told that in order to get her $200 gift card, she would have to sign up for two magazine subscriptions, which she could promptly cancel. She was asked for her billing address, then credit card information for "shipping charges." That's when her first doubts crept in.

Nevertheless, lured by the promise of a $200 gift card, she gave her financial details, "which I know now is very, very bad."

Ever since, she's been getting daily calls from the purported Wal-Mart gift broker, who started pestering her to share phone numbers of girlfriends or family. That's when she had that "aha!" moment and realized "I'd totally been played," she said.

She called the local BBB, which in turn contacted Wal-Mart. "They had no connection with any kind of texting promotion. Ever. Period," said Goggin.

He urges consumers to contact the store or bank directly to verify a suspicious text.

And just Googling the texted phone number pops up numerous references to Wal-Mart gift card scams.

"Do your research first, because that would have saved me," said Parker, who says she and her husband found only one suspicious $30 charge on their debit card before they canceled it. "We got lucky. Some people have been scammed for hundreds of dollars."

The state attorney general's office late Tuesday said it had not received any recent calls about texting scams.

In Lincoln, Michelle Starr, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mother, got a text message saying that her U.S. Bank account was "frozen." Suspicious, she called the bank herself, rather than the 888 number sent in the text. "From reading newspapers and watching TV, I knew you had to be alert." Sure enough, Starr's bank said there was no problem with her account.

On their Web sites, some cell-phone carriers advise customers to be wary. Sprint, for instance, specifically warns about text messages that claim to be from your bank or financial institution.

Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.