Smishing – the practice of sending fraudulent text messages targeting individuals to give personal and/or banking information – has existed pretty much as long as texting has.

Who could be more vulnerable to fall for a smishing scam? Whether they are robot-generated or written by people, everyone is susceptible yet the most vulnerable could be those who don’t easily distinguish spelling or grammatical errors when reading quickly in a second-learned language, are financially strapped, anxious about their economic safety and/or surrounded by misinformation.

A large population that sometimes shares these characteristics is Latino immigrants. Text messages are a main source of communication — and information — among Latinos (whether limited in English proficiency or not) across the country as with their family and friends abroad.

Though anyone with a cellphone can receive a fraudulent text message from someone impersonating a bank, there is an increased targeting of Latinos. “I think it has to do with the fact that many of them use WhatsApp to communicate with families across the border or in their native country, because it is one of the most cost-effective methods for them to be able to communicate,” Jose Rodriguez, president and CEO of El Concilio, said.

“As the (COVID-19) pandemic started, the number of scams shared within the Spanish speaking community increased along with the need for help,” reported NBC News.

Locally, across the state and nation, the Hispanic-Latino population has been one of the most disproportionately affected by COVID-19 during this ongoing pandemic. Given the dire circumstances some Latino immigrants have found themselves in since 2020, economic and health challenges have made them an even more so vulnerable population to smishing scams.

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Currently, El Concilio hosts pop-up vaccination clinics around the Stockton-metro area. “One of the things that we tell folks is that they are going to get a text message from the state letting them know about their appointment or where they can get the follow-up, things like that,” Rodriguez said.

Though the community-based organization is alerting people they’ll receive official state and/or vaccine COVID-19 text messages, “sometimes when they get a message that is COVID-19 related but it’s not what we said it would be, they are calling to verify if that’s legit,” Rodriguez said.

He said some of the fraudulent COVID-19 messages people that have received ask for people’s personal and/or banking information for them to receive help from the government or an organization. “I’ve come across a few people who have admitted that they fell for it and started the process, but then they claim that they didn’t complete the process.”

“What they have done — they claim — is that they have called us (El Concilio) to verify that this (scam text) is legitimate or not, because they are concerned about the message that they received,” Rodriguez said.

Spam messages — messages sent on the internet to a large number of recipients — can sometimes be scams, too. More than 47 billion spam texts had been sent as of October 2021, “up 55% from the year before,” NPR reported based on a report published in August by RoboKiller, a spam-blocking company.

Federal Communications Commission received roughly 14,000 complaints about unwanted text messages in 2020, “up 146% from the year before,” NPR reported. By October 2021, the commission had received nearly 10,000 complaints about scam texts.

How to prevent falling for a scam via text, emails, calls and/or WhatsApp messages?

  • Be aware: Keep an eye out for calls and texts from numbers you don’t have saved in your contact list. An amount of spam texts and calls are robot-generated or made by people in other countries were English isn’t the first-learned language. Spelling, grammar and/or typing mistakes can be telling signs of a spam message.
  • Take a second to think: If a message or person in a call asks for your bank PIN number, Social Security number, account, card and/or personal information, take a pause and think about what is happening. Banks will not ask for sensitive information over the phone and the government is not threatening to suspend Social Security numbers. Social Security numbers do not get suspended. It is understandable that panic and adrenaline might take over when you feel your safety and/or money is in danger but take a moment to think about what the spam call or text is asking from you.
  • You can call a source you trust to verify the legitimacy of a text or call: Rodriguez wants to remind the community that whenever they receive something that they are suspicious of, “don’t hesitate to reach out to us (El Concilio) or other organizations that you trust to verify this information.” He said if someone is suspicious of a text or call, “then they should go with their gut and call (a trusted source) to make sure it is legitimate.”
  • The government still sends physical, paper mail: Beware if you get messages with links claiming to be the source for stimulus bonus or government funds. All — local, state, and federal — governments still send mail via the United States Postal Office and have official, full-length links that host official information. If you get digital communication from someone claiming to be from the government, pause before answering or clicking on anything. Safest bet is to check with local agencies by calling them yourselves or checking the official websites for any announcements.
  • You can report spam and fraudulent numbers to the Federal Trade Commission: The FTC has a national “Do Not Call,” list server where you can report fraudulent numbers and/or register your phone to avoid them at donotcall.gov.
  • WhatsApp began marking messages as “Forwarded,” and “Forwarded many times”: With more than two billion users across the world, WhatsApp is a very popular private-messaging app between migrants in the U.S. and families at home and has become a principal source of information and communication for Hispanics and Latinos. The Meta-owned app now includes a message above texts that have been forwarded once or many times along with an arrow (or two-arrow) emoji on the top left corner. WhatsApp has become an application where misinformation is easily shared via texts, so being cautious of forwarded messages and links is a safe practice.