What is Smishing and How Dangerous is It? 

What is Smishing and How Dangerous is It? 

Systems are typically designed with a high level of security in mind, which makes them more challenging for bad actors to take control of. Consider your smartphone, for instance; it’s equipped with robust features like biometric authentication, app permissions, operating system updates, secure Wi-Fi connections, data backup, and password or PIN protection.

However, the challenge lies in the fact that even though high-tech devices meet expectations, the human factor still acts as a weak link in the chain. Your phone does what it’s programmed to do, but when you—the user—fail to take measures to secure your personal information, it becomes vulnerable to malicious threats, like viruses, phishing, and ransomware. This is why seasoned hackers often use social engineering tactics to exploit humans rather than target technological systems.

It’s also the reason why digital scams have been on the rise over the past decade or so, with a 61% increase in phishing attacks during the six months leading up to October 2022, compared to 2021. Among these attacks, SMS-based fraud—commonly referred to as smishing—had a significant impact on both individuals and businesses, with recorded losses amounting to $330 million in the same year, more than double the reported total in 2021.

While not many people know this fraud as smishing, quite a significant number of them have unknowingly become victims, not fully comprehending why or how they shared their personal and financial information with the perpetrators. Therefore, it’s worth delving into what exactly smishing is and how you can safeguard yourself from this threat.

What is Smishing?

As its name implies, smishing is a type of social engineering attack that piggybacks on the familiar and friendly channel of text messaging (SMS) and phishing (a tactical approach that baits users to disclose sensitive information). Just like traditional phishing scams, smishing targets large groups of people, tricking them into sending money, opening malicious links, or downloading malware to obtain sensitive data like passwords, banking credentials, and health records.

However, the difference between this technique and other phishing scams is that it happens via text messages rather than emails.

How Does Smishing Work?

In some reported cases, the attacker—sometimes called a smisher—poses as a legitimate business or government entity to make the victim believe they’re receiving a legitimate message from a trusted source. A link to a malicious website or app is often included, which upon clicking to access the provided service will request your personal information.

For example, you may be prompted to enter login credentials to your bank account on a fake website to verify your identity and, in turn, fix the issue of recorded suspicious activity on your account. Some attackers will also request that you call back on a provided number to receive further instructions, as they’ll want to use the call to record your voice, access your contact list, and extract even more information.

Upon completing their requests, you unknowingly give them control over your bank account, allowing them to withdraw all your funds.

Why Do Fraudsters Get Away With Smishing?

Smishing attacks are the go-to option for most attackers as research shows that text messages seem more personal than emails or any other messaging exchange service, and thus people trust them more. This trust is reflected in the high SMS click-through rates, which sit between 8.9 percent and 14.5 percent, compared to email’s average CTR of 1.33 percent.

What’s more, scammers can spoof phone numbers with burner numbers that can only be used once or for a short period or use software to send texts via anonymous email, making it hard for victims to trace or report them. It gets even more dangerous when the links embedded in the texts are inconspicuous. In other words, you can’t spot where they redirect you without clicking on the link, unlike the way you can on a PC.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the links are typically shortened using web services that disguise their destination and create a false sense of security. Think of it, you also receive shortened URLs in text messages from your banks and favorite e-commerce websites and have no reason to doubt their authenticity. So, your guard is down when you see a shortened link from a sender impersonating a trusted source.

While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) introduced the adoption of the STIR/SHAKEN protocol in 2020, which requires communications service providers to implement call verification features, the protocol doesn’t apply to SMS messages. So, you might get a “spam likely” warning notification when a scammer calls you, but not when the same perpetrator sends a text.

How to Avoid Smishing Attacks

If your mobile device is the “backdoor” into your personal or business life, then SMS is the “key” that opens it. That’s why smishing attacks should be a serious concern for both businesses and individuals. Fortunately, a few steps can help you avoid such threats.

Reverse Search the Number

If you’re suspicious of an incoming text, performing a simple search on the number can help you know whether you’re dealing with a scammer or a legitimate sender. Nuwber, for instance, offers a reverse phone number lookup service, through which you can find the name, address, employment history, criminal records, and other personal information of the owner of any phone number registered in the US. This allows you to make an informed decision before responding to the sender.

Install Anti-Malware and Security Apps on Your Device

A good first line of defense against smishing and other mobile threats is to install robust antivirus software and 2FA solutions (if your phone doesn’t have them pre-installed). The former scans your device and blocks or deletes malicious apps and links, while the latter allows you to set up a secondary confirmation method for specific actions like logging in or initiating a transaction.

Caller ID apps are also a must-have as they help you identify the sender and decide whether to open the message. Keep in mind, however, to only download apps from trusted sources.

Never Give Personal Information Over Text

No legitimate bank, credit card, or healthcare provider will ever contact you via text message to ask for your personal information. If you get an SMS that requests such, delete it immediately. You could reach out to the alleged company afterward to confirm the veracity of the message.

Conclusion

Smishing attacks aren’t going away anytime soon, and because people have grown accustomed to text messages, they’ve become less vigilant about opening and clicking on links from strangers. But as the saying goes, a little knowledge can go a long way. 

This guide has thrown light on the mechanics of smishing and how you can avoid them. Now, it’s up to you to use this information to protect your privacy, which we believe you’ll do.