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Complaints about spam texts were up 146% last year. Now, the FCC wants to take action

From phony package delivery notices, to fake requests from banks for personal information, to supposed COVID-19 contact tracers looking for a photo of your vaccine card — text message scams are on the rise in the U.S., costing Americans millions of dollars.

Even as the federal government has worked to crack down on robocalls, scam texts have boomed in recent years, and that has captured growing attention inside the Federal Communications Commission.

More than 47 billion spam texts have been sent so far in 2021, up 55% from the year before, according to an August report from RoboKiller, a spam blocking company. In 2020, the report estimates, scam texts cost Americans $86 million.

The FCC received roughly 14,000 complaints about unwanted text messages in 2020, up 146% from the year before. Already in 2021, the commission has received nearly 10,000 complaints about scam texts.

The FCC wants to roll out new rules to address spam texts

On Monday, the agency's acting chairwoman, Jessica Rosenworcel, announced she will ask the commission to begin creating a new set of federal rules that would govern spam texts, like those in place now for robocalls. That could include requiring phone providers to block spammers at the network level.

"In a world where so many of us rely heavily on texting to stay connected with our friends and family, ensuring the integrity of this communication is vitally important," Rosenworcel said in a statement. "It's time we take steps to confront this latest wave of fraud and identify how mobile carriers can block these automated messages before they have the opportunity to cause any harm."

Many of the scam texts sent in 2021 relate to COVID-19, with scammers pretending to offer free home testing kits, asking recipients to upload their vaccination card or asking for personal information under the guise of contact tracing.

Other common scams include texts posing as online account recovery links, bank or payment app verification texts and package delivery scams.

Spam texts are up, while robocalls are starting to slow

The boom in scam texts has come as robocalls have slowed. In 2019, a bipartisan bill called the TRACED Act gave the FCC and the Justice Department more tools to combat robocalls and scammers. It also required phone companies to implement technology designed to prevent calls from spoofed numbers by this past June.

Since then, the agency has grown more aggressive in tackling robocallers. Earlier this year, the FCC launched a "Robocall Response Team" and sent cease-and-desist letters to six voice providers transmitting robocall scams on behalf of clients.

In March, the agency levied its largest-ever penalty, fining a pair of Texas-based robocall scammers $225 million. The agency said the two men had made roughly a billion robocalls over several months pretending to offer health insurance plans from Blue Cross Blue Shield and Cigna, with millions of spoofed calls per day, many knowingly made to customers on the Do Not Call list.

Both the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission publish information to help consumers be on the lookout for warning signs like unknown numbers, offers of prizes or financial payments, links in text messages and unexpected messages from businesses. Both agencies ask consumers to report scams to their website.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.