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Scam texts: UK 'smishing' reports rise 700% in six months

File photo dated 08/05/19 of a woman using her mobile phone. Impersonation scam cases more than doubled in the first half of 2021 to 33,115, a finance industry trade association has said. Issue date: Monday September 13, 2021.
Reports of 'smishing' attacks in the UK have grown by more than 700% in the first six months of 2021. Photo: PA (PA)

Reports of "smishing" attacks in the UK have grown by more than 700% in the first six months of 2021, compared with the previous half, according to new data from consumer group Which? and Proofpoint.

Smishing, which includes scam text messages pretending to be from legitimate organisations such as banks, delivery companies and phone networks to steal consumers’ money and personal information, has thrived during the pandemic as shopping moved overwhelmingly online and people received more deliveries.

Banks and delivery companies alike are now adopting an SMS best practice guide for businesses on how to protect their customers from potential fraud.

Watch: Scammers thriving under lockdown

Reports of smishing in the UK are 15 times higher than in the US, according to Proofpoint’s data. Smishing attempts pretending to be from banks and delivery companies are particularly common as these industries often use text messages to communicate with customers.

The figures suggest there is a three to one ratio of parcel smishing attacks to banking smishing attacks. Voicemail smishing — where scammers send a text pretending to have a link to a voicemail is also a more recent technique.

Read more: UK pay and spending shrinks in year of pandemic

Proofpoint operates the 7726 text service that enables people to report spam texts for free, and collects data on those reports categorised as smishing.

Since establishing its own Scam Sharer tool in March 2021, Which? has received more than 9,000 reports to the tool. Two-thirds (65%) of reports have been phone call or text scams — with 31% of these scam text messages specifically.

Two of the top three most commonly reported SMS scams to the Scam Sharer tool have been fake text messages from delivery companies.

The prevalence of smishing scams has made it difficult for consumers to distinguish between genuine business texts and potential scams and made many wary of any texts claiming to be from a company.

“Smishing attempts have risen dramatically — with fraudsters taking advantage of the pandemic to trick consumers into giving away personal details and transferring their hard-earned cash," said Rocio Concha, Which? director of policy and advocacy.

“Businesses must play their part to protect people from scams. Our SMS guide aims to help organisations differentiate their texts from the scammers impersonating them so consumers can more easily recognise scam SMS messages."

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Which? research shows that seven in 10 (71%) people say they don’t trust text messages from companies to be free from scam risks.

While COVID has led to an increase in smishing, according to Proofpoint, the more fundamental cause for growth in smishing is that texting has moved from just being person to person communication between friends and family to become a commercial communications channel.

Watch: What are ‘smishing’ scams?