A fake contest for a $1,000 Target (TGT) gift card has been declared 2012's "Scam of the Year" by online complaint resolution platform Scambook.
The fraud, which Scambook spotted back in November, actually spread via text rather than through social media or email channels. Victims of this "smishing" (SMS phishing) scheme received a text reading "Your entry last month WON! Go to TargetContests.com enter winning code 3847 to claim your FREE $1000.00 Target gift card within 24hrs." Gullible users who clicked through to the (now-defunct) website and entered the code were prompted to enter a wide range of personal information, but never got their hands on the promised gift card.
The Target scam followed similar scams promising gift cards from the likes of Walmart (WMT) and Best Buy (BBY). And according to Scambook's Kase Chong, those two scams (in January and April, respectively) were smaller test runs for the main event, which dropped like a nuclear bomb in mid-November and prompted more than a hundred complaints to Scambook overnight.
"We believe that it was meant to center around the shopping holiday season," says Chong, who estimates that between 200,000 and 350,000 people across the country received the text on their cell phone. The scammers likely used a random-number generator that picked potentially active cell numbers with a reasonably high success rate.
The Long Con; A Scam That Breeds Worse Scams
The good news is that those people who clicked through to the site weren't directly relieved of their money. Instead, they were asked a series of seemingly innocuous questions intended to steal as much personally identifying information as possible, from the victim's mailing address to the name of his or her dog.
"The private info goes into a database, and they sell marketing lists on the black market," Chong explains. "Best-case scenario, you end up getting a whole lot more targeted spam." And the worst case scenario? Your information is used in identity-theft schemes -- or to con you with further scams: By including personally identifying details about you, the next wave of phishing emails will appear more convincing. In other words, this is a scam that breeds more effective scams.
Simple common sense should help most consumers sniff out this sort of fraud: If you didn't enter a contest to win a gift card, that should be your first tip-off that something is amiss. But Chong adds that cell phones are an unregulated "wild west" that makes them particularly susceptible to this kind of fraud. For instance, texting STOP to the number texting you -- a sort of universal code for unsubcribing to text lists -- will actually backfire in this instance, as it confirms to the scammers that your number is valid, and prompts them to send you more spam texts.
If you happened to fall for this scam, but have yet to receive any blow back, don't think you're out of the woods. Chong says that victims of the scam won't know for months, so for the foreseeable future, you should treat emails (and further texts) with a high degree of suspicion. For instance, you might get an email claiming to be from your bank that presents your address and phone number as "proof" that it's from a trusted source.
But here's one thing you won't be getting: A $1,000 Target gift card.
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.