Given the service’s two billion active users, it’s perhaps no surprise that WhatsApp spam is a common issue. Whether it’s a scam, a phishing attempt, or just plain old marketing drivel from companies, you need to know how to spot WhatsApp dangers so you can: a) block the sender; and b) make sure you’re not putting your security at risk.
So what does WhatsApp spam look like? What can you do about it? And how do you block a contact on WhatsApp?
How to Recognize WhatsApp Spam
Here are our top ways to spot WhatsApp spam, along with some advice on what steps you should take if you receive such a message.
1. Frequently-Forwarded Messages
Most WhatsApp users will be aware that the app lets you forward messages received from one person directly to another recipient (for those who didn’t know, long-press a message and tap the forward icon in the upper-right corner of the screen).
However, users might be less aware that WhatsApp has a separate indicator for frequently-forwarded messages. When a message has been forwarded five times, you’ll see a double arrow icon rather than the single arrow that denotes a typical forwarded message.
You’ll also see a small warning on the message box itself, letting you know that the message has been “forwarded many times.”
The distinction is important: if a message has been forwarded more than five times, it’s almost always going to be a form of spam—whether that’s yet another boring meme that’s doing the rounds, fake news, or something more sinister.
2. Unrecognized Numbers
WhatsApp lets you send a message to anyone whose phone number you have. That means that the senders of spam can scrape the web for contact details, buy lists of active numbers from the dark web, and even hack other services that have your phone number on file, then send you an unsolicited message.
It’s highly unlikely you’ll ever have such a sender in your address book, which means that when it lands in your WhatsApp inbox, it will always show as an unrecognized number.
Sure, you’ll occasionally get a message from an unrecognized number that turns out to be a buddy who’s changed numbers, but most of the time, they will be spam.
Although it is not a foolproof approach, one way to discourage some people from sending you unsolicited messages is to hide your WhatsApp status. The sender will not be able to determine whether your account is even active.
3. Scams and Suspicious Links
A huge part of WhatsApp spam has a single purpose—to try and make you open a link in the message. Click on the link at your peril; it’s going to try and illicit your personal details, banking details, login credentials, or any other form of data that has value on the dark web.
Many famous WhatsApp scams of the last few years have used this form of spam, notably:
- WhatsApp Gold: A supposedly premium version of WhatsApp was spammed to millions of users throughout 2016. Clicking on the link and sending a payment would apparently get you access to a fancier version of WhatsApp that celebrities were using. Countless people fell for it.
- WhatsApp Expiration: Another classic WhatsApp scam. You’ll see a message claiming that your WhatsApp account has expired and you need to pay to reactivate it. Remember, WhatsApp never charges to download the app and will not levy any new charges on your account once you’re up and running.
- Shopping Vouchers: One of the most common WhatsApp scams, you’ll get a message offering $250 of high street shopping vouchers if you complete a survey. In practice, the only thing you’ll receive in exchange for your efforts is a stolen identity.
4. Login/Verification Requests
You cannot use WhatsApp for Two-Factor Authentication (2FA) on any app or service that we’re aware of. Of course, you absolutely should set up 2FA on all your accounts; it’s one of the best ways to make sure they’re secure even if someone has managed to get hold of your login credentials—but those 2FA messages will never arrive on WhatsApp.
Ideally, you should use dedicated 2FA apps/hardware like Google Authenticator or YubiKey, but at the very least they’ll arrive via a direct SMS. If you receive such a message on WhatsApp and you’ve not tried to log in anywhere recently, don’t worry. It doesn’t mean someone is trying to hack your account. The message is spam and you can safely ignore and block it.
5. Specific Wording
Spam often uses the same generic tactics to try and dupe you. According to WhatsApp’s own literature, there are five common types of wording in messages that you need to be aware of:
- Misspellings or grammatical mistakes.
- Asking you to tap on a link or activate new features through a link.
- Asking you to share your personal information, such as credit card or bank account numbers, birth date, passwords.
- Asking you to forward a message.
- Claiming that you have to pay to use WhatsApp.
If you receive a message that matches one of the criteria, you should delete it immediately.
How to Manage and Reduce WhatsApp Spam
Once you’ve identified a WhatsApp message as spam, what are the next steps you need to follow?
1. How to Report a Number on WhatsApp
WhatsApp Business lets companies interact with their customers through the WhatsApp interface. It is a violation of WhatsApp’s terms to use the WhatsApp Business tool for bulk messaging and unsolicited contact.
Since the start of 2020, WhatsApp has appeared to take transgressions of the rule very seriously:
Our products are not intended for bulk or automated messaging, both of which have always been a violation of our Terms of Service. Beginning on December 7, 2019, WhatsApp will take legal action against those we determine are engaged in or assisting others in abuse that violates our Terms of Service, such as automated or bulk messaging […] even if that determination is based on information solely available to us off our platform.
If you receive an unsolicited message from a business account, you should file a WhatsApp report immediately. You report a spam number by opening the chat, tapping on the sender’s name, and scrolling down to Report Contact.
But what happens when you report someone on WhatsApp? Unfortunately, we don’t really know. Encryption means WhatsApp cannot see the contents of the message, but they will be able to see a log of your interactions and other associated data.
WhatsApp only says it will “launch an investigation.” If the sender is found to be in breach of the Terms of Service, their account could be suspended or banned.
Remember, blocking numbers is just one way you can make your WhatsApp account more secure.
2. How to Block Someone on WhatsApp
One of the old adages of creating an enjoyable Twitter experience is to block early and to block often. The same philosophy applies to WhatsApp spam. Don’t sit there getting frustrated as an endless stream of cat facts lands in your inbox; just block the account at the first sign of trouble.
You can block WhatsApp accounts by opening a message, clicking on the three vertical dots in the upper-right corner, and going to More > Block.
3. Restrict Who Can Add You to Groups
Group spam is a real issue. Whether it’s an over-eager friend who’s got your number or a scammer on the other side of the world, you’ll often find yourself added to groups that you do not want to be a part of.
In 2019, WhatsApp added a new privacy feature that lets you choose who can add you to new groups. Three options are available: Everyone, My Contacts, and My Contacts Except. To set it up, go to Settings > Account > Privacy > Groups.
Stay Safe When Using WhatsApp
With end-to-end encryption, several contact management settings, and a robust set of privacy options, WhatsApp is still a safe way to chat. But ultimately, your account is only as safe as the user. By following some basic security tips, you can ensure your account stays safe at all times.
If WhatsApp had these features, users wouldn’t go looking for other chat apps.
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