Spam text messages can be an annoyance, but they can be much worse if they’re sent by scammers who are after your money, your personal information or both.
Learn how to better spot both legal and illegal text message spam and what to do if you’re on the receiving end of them.
What are spam text messages?
Spam text messages are unwanted messages sent to your phone. Like spam emails or phone calls, these unsolicited texts can range from mildly annoying (marketing or political messages) to serious security risks (illegal scams).
Like unwanted robocalls, text message spam is a growing problem. In January 2023, Americans received 14.3 billion spam texts—about 52 spam texts for every person in the U.S., according to spam blocking app Robokiller.
While you may consider any unwanted text to be spam, not all unsolicited messages are actually illegal. It’s not illegal, for example, for businesses and organizations to send you marketing or informational texts if they’ve gotten your consent. You must provide consent in writing for commercial companies, while political organizations, nonprofits and schools may send you messages if you’ve given verbal consent. Emergency messages also are permitted.
What’s not legal: companies that use autodial (essentially, a random number generator) to send text message spam.
If you’re not sure if a text message is legitimate, you can use a reverse phone lookup to try and check.
What are spam text message examples?
Cybercriminals have one goal when they send out spam text messages: to get you to click on a link. To do so, they often impersonate legitimate businesses to lend credibility to their text messages. Businesses such as Wells Fargo, Verizon, Uber are just a few of the big-name organizations fraudsters have used to try and commit identity theft or fraud, but there are plenty others.
A PayPal spam text message.
An Apple spam text message.
A Bitcoin spam text message.
Can a virus be sent through text messages?
The short answer: Yes, text messages can spread malware, or malicious software that can infect your devices. Malware may include viruses or spyware, which can be used to track everything you do on your computer or phone and to steal sensitive personal information. Malware is generally installed when you click a link in a nefarious message.
If a scammer gets hold of your private data through malware, they may use it to steal your identity or simply sell it to the highest bidder.
Related: Identity theft check: Uncover if your data may have been compromised
Scammers may get your attention—and trick you into clicking malicious links—with offers of cheap credit cards or free gifts that require you to provide personal information (such as a bank account or Social Security number) to claim the prize you’ve supposedly “won.” As with many scams, this can result in lost money, a stolen identity and even more spam sent to your number.
Spam texts are often from bad actors who are phishing for your personal information or trying to peddle a fraudulent product, said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America.
And beyond these dangers, spam texts can rack up charges on your cellphone bill or simply slow down your device as messages eat up memory space.
How to stop spam text messages?
There are a few things you can do to try and stop—or at least minimize—text message spam.
- Stop giving out your cellphone number. While it may seem harmless to enter your number when you sign up for a service or buy a product, this opens you up to spam from marketers and, possibly, malicious actors.“Limiting to whom and when you give out your cellphone number is a good idea because it may be misused or sold to somebody else,” Grant said.
- Opt out of communications from any organization that does request or require your phone number. You may automatically be opted into text notifications, so check whether you’ve actively given consent and check any “opt out” options you’re given.
- Read privacy policies before giving out your contact information. While these policies are often full of legalese, you may be able to determine whether the company shares or sells customer contacts to third parties.
- Put your number on the FTC’s National Do Not Call Registry. In all likelihood, this won’t prevent scammers from contacting you, but it will help cut down marketing messages. If you’re getting spam texts despite putting your number on the Do Not Call list, you know the senders are doing so illegally.
- Forward spam texts to your carrier. Customers of AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and Bell can forward messages to 7726 (SPAM) and block the sender for free.
- File a complaint with the FCC and/or FTC. If you get an autodialed, prerecorded text message that you didn’t consent to receive, you can report it to the FCC’s Consumer Complaint Center.
- Use a call-blocking app. There are a number of third-party apps that will block incoming spam text messages. These have their pros and cons, so do your research before you commit. You can also block individual contacts on your phone without downloading a separate app.
If you do receive spam texts, don’t respond. Replying lets a scammer know that your number is active, which will likely prompt more spam. If you receive a text link from an unknown sender, don’t click on it and never provide personal information to an unknown number. It could install malware or lead you to a fake page requesting sensitive information.