Experts warn that con artists and identity thieves are sending fake text messages that promise a whopping $1,000 gift card from Target.
"It's identity theft in reverse," said Todd Mark, vice president of education at the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Dallas. "They're stealing somebody else's identity to trick you into giving your personal information."
In this case, there are two victims -- the consumer and the retailer. Mark said schemers are using Target's identity to dupe consumers into giving out their personal information.
Plano resident Clarissa Brockway got the fraudulent text three times over the course of two days.
"Right away, my alarm bells go off if it's too good to be true," she said.
The message said, "Your entry last month has WON!" and went on to encourage the recipient to click on a URL and enter a "winning code" to claim a $1,000 Target gift card within 24 hours.
The NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit team typed the URL into a Web browser. At first glance, the site looked legitimate, similar to Target's. It's designed to look like the real thing in order to lure an unsuspecting person into revealing personal information such as credit card or account information.
"They may be looking for other identifying information," Mark said. "They may be asking for a Social Security number, a date of birth, a mother's maiden name. They could be trying to access other accounts that you have existing or may be trying to set up new accounts with in your name -- true identity theft -- so you have to be careful."
But when NBC 5 tried to enter the prize code, virus-detecting software blocked NBC 5 from going further, labeling the URL as malicious.
"There could be other intentions beside just financial fraud, so they could download software that doesn't hit you for four or six months and stays dormant and then it triggers in the middle of 2013," said Mark, who added that the schemer could be trying to wreak havoc with computer viruses.
Banks may be less likely to quickly catch on if a customer mistakenly gives thieves access to their credit or debit card during the Christmas season.
"This is a time of year [when] it's not unusual for people to buy a lot of gifts and maybe pump up their purchasing power more than the other 11 months of the year, so it's not necessarily going to trigger a fraud alert if, out of the blue, you spend $1,000 on somebody’s card," Mark said. "They're banking on that."
Target told NBC 5 that it is aware of the scheme. The retailer said it takes consumer protection seriously and it works to block fake Target websites and links as soon as they are discovered.
Target isn't the only retailer affected; other legitimate companies have also been the focus of bogus text hoaxes.
Experts offer this advice:
- Do not reply to the text.
- Do not click on any embedded links to protect your computer from potential viruses.
- Never give out your personal details unless you are proactively seeking information. If someone solicits to you, be wary.
- Target's website advices consumers to report suspected scam texts by forwarding them to 7726. (The letters SPAM on the keypad.) Once you do, you'll get a message from your wireless provider asking for the phone number that sent the text.
- You can also go straight to the source. Contact Target or any other retailer to ask questions or see if a promotion is real or bogus.
Brockway, a tech-savvy Web designer, said her Twitter friends were abuzz about the text-message scheme.
"A few friends on Twitter have tweeted about getting it and, of course, they're always like, 'It's a scam. It's a scam; watch out,'" she said. "They're very good about warning other people."
She said she believes getting rid of the text, fast, is the best thing to do.
"First of all, delete it right away -- which is exactly what I did -- and always be on guard about these things," she said. "If you don't recall entering a contest, don't assume that somebody did it for you or anything like that. Be vigilant."