SMS spoofing: An overview + 5 SMS spoofing types to avoid
June 28, 2023 3 min
SMS spoofing and other sophisticated mobile scams and fake texts can be hard to spot. Often, victims may not even realize they’re the target of a texting scam. Keep reading to learn what a spoofed text is, how to spot one, and how to protect yourself. Then, get comprehensive online security to help protect against scams that accompany fake mobile texts.
SMS spoofing is a technology or practice that alters the sender ID on text messages so that the message appears to be coming from a different number or name. SMS spoofing can be used for legitimate purposes, like setting a brand name on marketing texts, or for nefarious purposes, like impersonating trusted people or brands.
How SMS spoofing works
Spoofing text messages works by altering the sender’s name or phone number so that the message appears to be coming from someone else. There are hundreds of text spoofer apps that make this possible. Spoofing can be done for legitimate purposes, like a bank displaying their name instead of the phone number they use, or for nefarious purposes such as online scams.
Scammers can use spoof texting to impersonate known brands or public figures and carry out mobile scams. They choose a legitimate name or number that people know or trust and target an individual or send out an SMS to a long list of numbers.
SMS spoofing is just one type of spoofing attack. Scammers can also spoof emails, set up spoofed websites, or use caller ID spoofing to perpetrate their scams. Spoofing names or numbers can also be part of a phishing attack, in which hackers try to dupe unsuspecting targets into clicking on malicious links.
SMS spoofing vs. smishing: What’s the difference
The term smishing is a blend of the words SMS and phishing. Phishing attacks try to lure people into clicking a link that installs malware or points to a fake site. While phishing attacks can be sent through a variety of communication vehicles, smishing does this exclusively over text messages.
Smishing messages often use spoofed texts, but they can also come from an unknown number. Spoofed text messages always impersonate a person, business, or institution. Another difference is that smishing is only used for nefarious purposes, but SMS number spoofing can be used legitimately or even as a practical joke.
Fake texts often include spelling mistakes.
Legal vs. illegal uses of SMS spoofing
SMS spoofing can be used for a variety of legal purposes. Whistleblowers, dissidents, or other sources may want to hide their identity when communicating with journalists or coming forward with sensitive information.
Spoofed text messages are also often used by businesses to “prove” who they are. If your bank sent you an important message from a random number, you’d probably think it was a scam. But when you see your bank’s name on an SMS, you are reassured that it’s a legitimate message.
Or is it? Scammers rely on our tendency to trust well-known organizations or companies we do business with. And they can exploit this trust when carrying out spoofing attacks.
Nevertheless, there are numerous reasons why individuals or businesses use spoofing to reassure customers, preserve anonymity, or mask their real number.
Legal uses of spoofing
To send marketing messages to many customers.
To remain anonymous for safety reasons (e.g., tipping off the police).
When governments or service providers make official announcements.
When a company doesn’t want recipients to respond via SMS.
To send a text message without a cell phone.
Illegal uses of spoofing
To trick people into sharing info that can be used for identity theft or other scams.
To commit credit card or financial fraud.
To steal from a company or access its data.
To trick victims into sending money.
To install malware onto a victim’s phone.
Types of SMS spoofing
There are different kinds of malicious text message number spoofing, each with their own motivations. From straight-up fraud to getting revenge, here are the most common types of SMS spoofing:
Fake sender IDs
Using fake sender IDs is a type of text message spoofing attack that replaces the actual sender ID with a source the target will trust, like a phone carrier or credit card company. The aim is often to extract information or money from the victim. Criminals can also use caller ID spoofing to make fake phone calls that look like they come from a well-known company.
Someone might even use a fake sender ID to pretend to be someone you know in order to ask for financial help or access personal information.
Unsolicited bulk messages
Sending unsolicited bulk messages is another type of text messaging spoofing that involves sending the same message out to a list of numbers in the hope that the message rings true to some of the recipients. This scam may include a link to a malicious website that will install malware or steal information you enter.
Fake money transfers
Fraudsters can use message spoofing to run PayPal scams or even masquerade as a bank, pretending they’ve transferred money into a target’s account. The text will request that the victim complete the transaction or provide personal information by clicking a link (which ends up being malicious).
An example of a PayPal scam.
Using spoofed texts to harass victims is often done for personal more than financial gain. Spoofing can be used by stalkers, bullies, or a vindictive person the target knows. The goal could be any number of outcomes, from upsetting or scaring the victim to intimidating them into sending money.
A spoofing SMS can also be used to carry out romance scams such as catfishing. The catfisher could fake an SMS from a bank or payment service to look like they’ve transferred money, in the hope the victim falls for the ruse and does what the scammer wants in return.
In some cases, spoofed messages can be used to steal valuable corporate information. This can happen when spyware is injected onto a phone after an employee clicks a malicious link as part of a spear phishing attack that was instigated via a spoofed text.
Another example of corporate espionage is whaling, where senior-level executives are targeted. The consequences of corporate espionage can be serious, resulting in lost revenue, reputational damage, data theft, and more.
How to spot SMS spoofing: 7 warning signs
Because scammers want you to trust that the message they’re sending is authentic, they use social engineering tactics when sending spoofed texts. At first glance, a spoofed message can look convincing, but there are telltale signs to look out for.
Here are the signs to look out for to tell if a text message is spoofed:
Suspicious sender name field: Look out for suspicious sender name markers, like if the phone number is long (10 or 11 digits) or different from the contact’s usual number. Another obvious sign of spoofing is if the sender’s name is misspelled.
A sense of urgency: A spoofed text message will often sound urgent, in the hope that you click on a link or respond without thinking.
Suspicious links or attachments: If you’re not used to getting an attachment from the sender or a link looks too long, too short, or has strange characters, it could be a spoofed text.
Offers that are too good to be true: Spoofed text messages often try to trick victims with enticing offers. Be careful if an offer seems too good to be true, because it usually is. And if you’ve “won” a draw you never entered, it’s a hoax.
Poor spelling or grammar: Reputable institutions and companies strive to avoid spelling mistakes, so an SMS with glaring errors is almost certainly fake. A scammer might make mistakes because they’re not a native speaker, or they may even misspell certain words on purpose to bypass spam filters.
Requests for personal information: No organization — not even your employer — will ask you to confirm personal information over SMS. If you receive a text asking for sensitive details, it’s almost certainly a scam.
Suspicious requests: Look out for requests to reset your password, pay a delivery fee, or take other unusual actions, especially when you weren’t expecting it.
An example of a spoofed text.
How to prevent SMS spoofing: 9 cybersecurity tips
Spoofed text messages are often used in smishing attacks and other scams, so you need to know how to protect yourself.
Here’s how to avoid becoming the victim of a spoofed text scam:
Block unknown numbers: The best way to protect yourself from random texts is by blocking unknown or private numbers. Use your phone’s settings and any features your phone carrier offers.
Avoid clicking suspicious links: Don’t click suspicious links or attachments because they could lead to malware.
Never reset your password if you didn’t initiate the reset: Don’t respond to an unsolicited SMS request to reset your password. Banks and other organizations won’t ask you to do this via a text message.
Protect your privacy: Be careful when sharing personal information over SMS, no matter how trivial it seems. Small details about you can add up quickly and could be the final piece a scammer needs.
Enable spam filters: Turn on your phone’s spam filters and install a spam-blocking app to stop spam texts.
Don’t respond instantly: If you get a text urging you to do something immediately, wait and confirm whether it’s a legitimate SMS using the tips above.
Analyze the sender ID: If you get a suspicious SMS, check the number and sender’s details carefully.
Close security gaps: Always keep your phone’s operating system and apps updated to help patch vulnerabilities and mitigate risk.
Use a security app: Install trusted antivirus software that will block anything nasty from landing on your phone and will help protect you if you accidentally click a malicious link.
Use comprehensive cybersecurity to stay safe online
Following the tips above can help you avoid falling victim to an SMS spoofing scam. But staying vigilant and constantly monitoring your messages can be difficult, especially when you’re pressed for time. That’s where reliable online security software comes in.
Norton 360 for Mobile features a powerful suite of security and private tools to help protect you against malicious links, dangerous websites, and other digital threats that can be hidden inside spoofed texts. Install Norton and start protecting your digital life today.
Have more questions about text messaging spoofing? Check out these frequently asked questions.
Is SMS spoofing legal?
SMS spoofing is legal when used for legitimate purposes, like when an organization or agency uses their real name as the sender ID instead of the seemingly random number that their communication was actually sent from. However, sending a spoof text message is illegal if used for malicious purposes or to commit fraud.
Can someone send text messages using my number?
Yes, someone can send spoof text messages using your number. Scammers usually do this when they want to text their targets from a local number. A scammer could also target someone you know and try to trick them by spoofing your phone number.
How do I know if my number is being spoofed?
If you’re getting text messages or calls from strangers asking who you are or receiving text message responses to a conversation you haven’t been a part of, your phone number could be being used as part of a spoofing campaign.
Crissy Joshua began her tech career writing how-to guides on device performance and optimization. Her focus has now widened into issues related to emerging digital threats and online privacy, with a commitment to helping people understand the forces shaping their digital lives.
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