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Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

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April 18, 2022

Smishing: Phishing with a Different Bait

The Retail Payments Risk Forum team is always on the lookout for changes in attack patterns by the criminal element regarding payments. Our sources of research include industry news, networking with payments stakeholders, third-party reports, and our internal security warnings. One other source we have is our own personal experience, though we have to remind ourselves of our colleague Claire Greene's warning that each of us is a sample of one. What we experience may not be, and probably isn't, what the average person might encounter.

I was recently reminded of this warning with regard to my own experience with smishing attacks. Unlike phishing, which uses email, smishing uses SMS text messages to entice you to click on a malicious link that either loads malware on your phone or, more likely, directs you to a fake website to capture your login information. (Simply opening the text message poses little risk.) Over the last several weeks, I have been getting one to two text messages a day on my phone asking me to click on a link to respond—usually to a customer satisfaction survey allegedly from a major retailer, with the offer of a gift card as a reward for responding. One message informed me that a product I had ordered (and already received) from an online retailer couldn't be shipped until I clicked on the link to pay an international tax of $2.83. I am confident that all these messages were "smishing" attempts.

Although a part of me was tempted to assume my experience was indicative of a very recent trend, I decided to research whether I was indeed average in experiencing an increased number of these attacks. It appears Claire was right—although my research showed that smishing attacks have substantially increased, seems I am fortunate to have only recently become a target. A cybersecurity firm that claims to handle 80 percent of mobile messages in North America has reportedOff-site link that the number of smishing attacks during the third quarter of 2020 had increased 328 percent over the previous quarter. The FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) doesn't separate smishing from phishing, vishing (phone calls), or pharming (redirection to a fake website) incidents, but the IC3's Internet Crime Report 2021 Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link shows that these complaints increased 34 percent from 2020 to 2021.

The warning signs for a smishing message are quite similar to those of a phishing attack and may include the following:

  • A sense of urgency, pushing you to respond right away. As we are now in income tax season, these messages may include references to past due taxes or a suspended refund.
  • An offer of a reward such as a gift card, rebate, or a coupon for a future purchase from the retailer
  • Poor English grammar or improperly formatted phone numbers
  • An unknown sender. It is best to report or delete messages you weren't expecting from people you don't know.

Be aware that what appears to be the sender's phone number is often spoofed. It may be a familiar number or at least may have a local area code. This is intended to increase your trust and thus the likelihood that you will respond.

Likewise, the protective measures you should take to protect yourself against falling victim to a smishing attempt are similar to any other safeguards you take:

  • Keep your mobile device software and browsers updated with the latest security upgrades.
  • If you are in doubt about the legitimacy of the message, do not use the link or phone number provided in the text to contact the sender. If the message appears to be from someone you know or a business you are familiar with, find their number in your contacts or online and contact them directly.

I realize that the criminals launching these types of attacks are generally using automated systems to transmit hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of the messages in hopes of getting even just a small percentage of recipients to click on the link. So even if you are like me and not average, there is a good chance you have been or are likely to be the target of a smishing attack. I hope you will use information to not become a victim, and distribute it to help keep others from falling victim.