Last month, a Mr. Li in Shenyang, China, received a text from his bank’s customer service number, notifying him that his credit card had accumulated reward points and telling him how to cash them in. When he followed the link and logged in, the site went dead. An hour later, he noticed more than $650 missing from his account. Only then did he realize he’d been scammed. The text had come from his bank’s number, but it didn’t come from his bank.
Instead, it came from a fake cell tower, a racket that’s reaching epidemic levels in China. Scammers use a device called a base station to set up a fake signal coming from a local house or shop. As long as it’s the strongest signal available, phones will connect automatically. The phony tower can’t reach the larger network, so if you try to place a call or visit a website, you’ll come up empty — but unless you’re actively using your phone, you’d never know the difference. From there, scammers can send texts from any number they want. In cases like Mr. Li’s, that turns out to be a very lucrative trick.