Future Tense

How Can You Tell if an Election Text Message Is a Scam?

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 03:  Democratic supporters work at a phone bank event at the Westside Democratic Headquarters on November 3, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. Democrats are targeting at least six congressional seats in California, currently held by Republicans, where Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election. These districts have become the centerpiece of their strategy to flip the House and represent more than one-fourth of the 23 seats needed for the Democrats to take control of the chamber in the November 6 midterm elections.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Volunteers phone banking on the other end of that unwanted text.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

If you haven’t gotten a text message imploring you to vote this Tuesday, you’re about as rare a creature as the Central Park mandarin duck. This year, campaigns have been going all-in on texting to drive voter turnout. Some appear to come from volunteers, others are clearly sent by automated text-messaging systems, and some even pretend to be from the candidates themselves. And just like every other form of digital political communication these days, some of the texts people have been receiving around the country are peddling flat-out false, and potentially disenfranchising information.

It happened in Monroe County, Michigan, earlier this month, when some voters called their county clerk’s office with reports that they received a text saying that their absentee ballot was incomplete. The text prompted the recipients to click on a link and fill out their personal information. But the clerk’s office said it sent no such messages—clearly, the texts were a phishing scam.

In Indiana, voters across the state have been getting text messages from a sender who proports to be President Trump with a text that reads, “This is President Trump. Your early vote has NOT been RECORDED on Indiana’s roster.” The text then links to the website of the Republican National Committee—which ignored reporters who asked about the texts last month.

Some examples are fairly benign. I’m a registered voter in California and got a text message on Sunday that claimed to come directly from Sen. Dianne Feinstein: “This is Senator Diane Feinstein. Tuesday’s election extremely important. Please check out my video & return your ballot by Tuesday.” The text contained a shortened link that took me to a YouTube video of a campaign ad from the senator. Since I would love a direct line to the senator, I texted the number back, but still haven’t received a reply.

Beyond the annoyance of getting an unwanted text, the problem with these messages is that their provenance is often hard to fact-check. Short of calling your county clerk’s office to confirm if there’s been any campaign irregularity, the texts could prompt voters to make an extra trip on Election Day, if they contain incorrect polling-place information. Worse, some of them could trick voters into giving their personal information to a scammer.
On Election Day, when voters are already rushing between work, the polls, picking up kids from school, and whatever else they need to do, wrong or confusing texts could potentially dissuade them from voting altogether.

There are laws against sending automated texts that the recipient didn’t consent to, according to Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst at Consumers Union. But the problem is that what constitutes consent has to meet a very low bar when it comes to election-related texts. “If you provide your phone number when you register to vote or to your political party, that can be considered consent to receive political robo-texts and calls,” Mahoney said.
Not all texts from campaigns are from robots, though. Increasingly, campaigns are using services, like Hustle and Relay, that allow volunteers to easily send out texts to voters from their own cell phones with sample language that they can copy and paste or customize. Mahoney says that texts from individuals, even done with the aid of an app, don’t clearly violate federal protections against nonconsensual robo-texting.

Rock the Vote, the voter-turnout nonprofit that focuses on young adults and first-time voters, has leaned into text messaging as a way to target its base in a big way. “The one thing about peer-to-peer texting is it 66 times faster than phone calls and has three times better the response rate of emails,” said Andrew Feldman, a spokesperson from Rock the Vote in an interview. “We are seeing almost 4,000 percent higher in engagement rates over text messaging then we did last year. You can compare that to our engagement on email, which is up, but it’s only up 700 percent” With such a high success rate—texts messages are annoying, but people generally open them no matter what—the tactic is unlikely to be abandoned anytime soon.

Still, if voters get too many unwanted texts and if the number of cases of reported misinformation begins to surge, the method may well lose its appeal. Short of texting the number back and telling them not to text you again, or blocking the number, people can report unwanted automated texts and calls to the Federal Trade Commission. For texts that are obviously a scam, cell phone subscribers can also report the text to their carriers. “If you have Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile, you can forward the text to 7726, that’s S-P-A-M,” says Mahoney. Otherwise, be careful about clicking on links from texts that appear unfamiliar, particularly if the link is masked with a URL shortener. And if you get a text that does contain specific information about where your polling place is, take a couple minutes to check the facts before you take the information at face value.

If you do text back the number that messaged you, though, remember that there’s a good chance the person on the other side is a volunteer just trying to help. A volunteer on a California primary campaign over the summer told the Guardian that he was sent a notably hideous dick pic in response to a text he sent to a voter. Don’t do that.