Last week, lots of folks noticed an unusually heavy rainstorm of texts from sources claiming to be associated with the Bernie Sanders for President campaign–although the campaign had only just begun. One responses was from Anne Laurie, a Daily Kos diarist, who says she doesn’t text from her “secondhand Galaxy S6” and doesn’t provide her cell number to anyone. Nevertheless, she received numerous texts from Bernie supporters in the immediate hours after his campaign announcement. She concluded they really were from the campaign or from legitimate supporters — which irritated her even more, because she doesn’t presently support Sanders in the presidential primary.
Bernie supporters, on the other hand, may be particularly vulnerable to texting scams claiming to be affiliated with the Sanders campaign. After all, they’re an enthusiastic bunch and like to know there are like-minded people eager to meet them. The biggest concern with text scamming, or “SMishing” for “phishing” via SMS, is identity theft. Viruses are also a concern. And as online donations surge for political campaigns, avoiding scam links will become more of a challenge.
SMishing may be growing as robocalls decrease in effectiveness (The Atlantic says “telephone culture is disappearing”). It’s true that robocalls have been used to impersonate campaigns (or sometimes do the really nefarious dirty work of racist campaigns) and continue to be used to run scams. While we were working on this article, CNN reported on a group running robocalls impersonating Donald Trump that netted $100,000, got media coverage as a scam and, at the time of this writing, was still going strong. But as New York Magazine’s Jake Swearingen wrote just a couple of weeks ago, we may be done with robocalls as a thing, since carriers now have both the technology and the incentive to block or radically screen calls–although it’s not so clear whether the same would be true for texts.
In a brand new study report, “Hamsini Sridharan of MapLight and Samuel Woolley of the Institute for the Future outline more than 30 concrete proposals—all grounded in the democratic principles of transparency, accountability, standards, coordination, adaptability, and inclusivity–to protect the integrity of the future elections, including the pivotal 2020 U.S. presidential election.” The authors argue that both anonymity and automation “have made deceptive digital politics especially harmful.” They locate solutions in public policy and legal liability (including increasing the liability of the platforms themselves, a proposal sure to raise a lot of eyebrows). But they also emphasize routes like public education and ethical guidelines embraced by the media.
Enter the Direct Marketing Association’s code of ethics–not the law, to be sure, but norms that we can hope the political industry will embrace consistently enough that those who do go outside the lines will be seen as exceptional pariahs. More important even than the code’s numerous provisions, compliance with which would end scammy or even opportunistic SMS texts, is the overall spirit of the code, a customer-centric, privacy-embracing document. And, at least two provisions, 1.3 and 3.11 require that your data be cleaned regularly, which data append services will do for you.
In the meantime, we can all take some simple preventative measures. Obviously, don’t open any attachments sent via text. And whatever you do, don’t text back! if you don’t recognize the source of a text— according to the Federal Trade Commission, not answering is the best way to avoid negative consequences to your identity or your smartphone. While scam and false pretense texts are clearly illegal, there are some opportunistic texting schemes that may slip through the cracks of the law. Under federal law, unsolicited messages and emails are illegal, and both textual and phone “robocalls” are too, but there are exceptions for political surveys, fundraising messages from charities, and popular peer-to-peer texting apps–understandable exceptions, but ones that may be easy for smart and crappy people to manipulate.