Scam Alert: AT&T texts can be faked to hack you

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Photo: CNN

By Jose Pagliery

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — There’s a problem with the way AT&T sends out customer alerts via text message: They’re too easy to mimic.

With little effort, a scammer could send you alerts that look just like the real thing. Click on a link and the hacker will grab your login credentials — or fool you into giving up your credit card too.

It’s yet another phishing scheme. But instead of email, hackers can target you with texts.

The problem stems from AT&T not making its real alerts look legitimate enough, said Dani Grant, the computer programmer who noticed the flaw.

Spoofed AT&T Text Messages

“If the official texts look like phishing, it’s impossible for the customer to distinguish between what’s phishing and what’s not,” she said.

First, AT&T’s alerts come from a weird, four-digit “short code” number. Anyone can buy a short code (charities do it all the time). And even more confusing, different AT&T customers see different short codes.

Second, some of AT&T’s real links are funky. Some point to att.com while others take you to dl.mymobilelocate.com.

Third, the text messages don’t even have a consistent format. Sometimes they start in all capital letters: “AT&T FREE MSG.” At other times they’re lowercase: “AT&T Free Msg.”

To test her theory, Grant set up her own short code, bought a legitimate-looking website address and sent a message. Can you tell the difference?

AT&T declined to comment on this topic. Grant said she reported it to the company as a security flaw but hasn’t heard back.

To be fair, though, AT&T isn’t the only one. Verizon sends out text messages from a 12-digit number that changes depending on the customer, and it sends links to vzwmobile.com or vzw.com.

T-Mobile sends alerts from a three-digit short code (also different for every user) and links to t-mo.co.

SMS text messages are convenient, because they’re reliable. You can get them anywhere, anytime on any phone.

But Grant thinks these companies should opt for email instead, or communicate through a dedicated app. It’s easier for a company to make emails look official. And an app would, in most cases, keep out the bad guys.