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Ciara O'Rourke
By Ciara O'Rourke August 26, 2020

These texts are suspicious, but not tied to sex trafficking

If Your Time is short

  • These text messages appear to be scams, but not tools for sex traffickers. 
 

Security warnings that are circulating on social media give some good advice: don’t click on links in text messages from unknown numbers. But there’s another layer to the cautionary posts that stretches beyond the typical guidance. 

"I saw that if you get a text message like this that it’s used in sex trafficking," said one post being shared widely on Facebook. "If you click the link it’ll allow them to track you."

It tops a screenshot of what appears to be a text message with a link that reads, "We found a parcel from March pending for you. Kindly claim ownership and confirm for delivery here."

Other posts echoed that message and showed screenshots of similar text messages, each seemingly addressing the recipient by their name and each including a link. One post uses the #SaveOurChildren hashtag, which is linked to the unfounded QAnon conspiracy theory that there is a global child-sex trafficking ring involving Democratic politicians and celebrities who have been supportive of the party. 

These posts were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) 

We didn’t find any evidence to support the idea that these texts, while suspect, are part of a sex trafficking scheme. 

We reached out to Polaris, which seeks to end human trafficking and operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, to ask about the claim. The organization told us in an email that it wasn’t aware of any situations that follow this pattern, though such warnings seem to pop up every few months. 

"Polaris always encourages the public to educate themselves and others on the issues of sex and labor trafficking," Polaris said in a statement. "However, we strongly caution against spreading stories with potentially misleading information about human trafficking recruitment tactics as they may ultimately cause more harm than good."

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The human trafficking hotline has helped Polaris understand how sex traffickers recruit victims, according to the organization. Traffickers commonly prey on a victim’s specific vulnerabilities and make promises aimed at addressing that person’s needs as a way to impose their control and "they may establish strong psychological and emotional ties with their victims before forcing or coercing them to engage in commercial sex." 

The text messages that appear in the Facebook posts seem similar to a so-called "smishing" scam that received news coverage in January. Smishing combines SMS, aka a text message, and phishing. In the case of this particular smishing scam, people said that they had gotten texts purportedly from FedEx that asked them to click a link and set up delivery preferences. 

The link led to "an obviously-fake Amazon listing and asked to take a customer satisfaction survey," reported How-To Geek, a technology news site. "As a thank you for answering some questions, you’re given the opportunity to claim an ‘expensive’ product for free as a reward."

The catch was that to claim this reward, you had to hand over your address and your credit card number to pay for shipping and handling. 

"The real scam resides in the fine print," How-To Geek said. "By agreeing to pay the small shipping fee, you’re also signing up for a 14-day trial to the company that sells the scammy product. After the trial period, you will be billed $98.95 every month and sent a new supply of whatever item you claimed as a reward."

Al Pascual, chief operating officer and co-founder of Breach Clarity, which develops identity theft protection tools, told us that these kinds of messages aren’t unusual as scammers are broadening how they attack consumers. The texts in the Facebook posts, he said, "would create little risk for ‘tracking’ the recipient because of the difficulty inherent in delivering and subsequently installing the necessary malware on mobile devices."

Rather, these kinds of messages are often designed to direct people to spam sites that sell goods or services or solicit personal information under false pretenses, Pascual said. 

We recommend that anyone who receives these kinds of texts block the number that sent them. We rate the claim that these texts are tied to sex trafficking False.

 

Our Sources

Facebook post, Aug. 24, 2020

Facebook post, Aug. 24, 2020

Facebook post, Aug. 24, 2020

Facebook post, Aug. 24, 2020

Facebook post, Aug. 25, 2020

Consumer Reports, Smishing: A silly word for a serious fraud risk, Sept. 19, 2019

How-To Geek, PSA: Watch out for this new text message package delivery scam, Jan. 17, 2020

The Washington Post, That text you got about a package isn’t from FedEx. It’s a scam, Jan. 23, 2020

Statement from Polaris, Aug. 25, 2020

Email interview with Al Pascual, chief operating officer, Breach Clarity, Aug. 25, 2020

 

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These texts are suspicious, but not tied to sex trafficking

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