What Short Codes Are and How to Use Them

If You Want to Enter Text Sweepstakes, You'll Need This Skill

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Have you ever seen an invitation to enter a text message sweepstakes, get a great deal, or receive a free offer by texting a keyword to a short code? The invitations usually look something like this: "For a chance to win, text the keyword ENTER to short code 22222."

But what is a short code? And how do companies use them?

A short code, also known as a common short code or CSC, is a shortened telephone number that companies use to invite consumers to participate in mobile marketing campaigns.

Short codes are useful because they are easier to type on a small smartphone keypad than a full telephone number is. They're usually much easier to remember, too, which helps marketers and people sending texts alike.

In the United States and Canada, standard short codes are five or six digits long, except for some special exceptions (usually, shorter short codes are managed by mobile providers). Short codes in the United States are not allowed to start with the number 1.

Types of Short Codes

Short codes can be randomly assigned or, for an extra fee, companies can select vanity short codes which are similar to vanity license plates. Vanity short codes are usually especially easy to remember, like "567890" (which was used in AT&T's now expired Where Legends Live Sweepstakes). Some vanity short codes are also spelled out as words, such as Walt Disney's DISNEY short code or GQ's GQMAG short code.

To send a text to a short code consisting of letters, such as DISNEY, simply look at your phone's keypad and use the numbers that correspond to each letter.

Short codes can be either dedicated or shared. Dedicated short codes are assigned to a single company, while shared short codes are used by several different companies simultaneously.

How Mobile Keywords Are Used with Short Codes

Most campaigns instruct you to send a mobile keyword as your text to a short code. For example, a 7-Eleven campaign asked customers to text the keyword "PROMOS" to a short code to receive digital coupons by text message while a Dove campaign asked people to vote on whether an unconventionally beautiful model was "WRINKLED" or "WONDERFUL".

Mobile keywords are important because they tell the company which advertisement you are responding to and how you want to interact with that campaign. If you text "STOP" to a short code, you are requesting to unsubscribe from text messages, while texting "ENTER" to the same short code could give you a sweepstakes entry.

When companies share a short code, the mobile keyword can also indicate which company you are interacting with. Texting "DINNER" might connect you with a restaurant while texting "GLITTER" to the exact same short code could send your text to a jewelry store. So always be sure to take note of the mobile keyword that you need to use to enroll in an offer.

How to Send Texts to Short Codes

Many companies ask you to text short codes to enter text message sweepstakes or receive coupons and special offers. So how do you text short codes?

1. Navigate to the Text Message Section of Your Phone or Mobile Device
To start, open your "Messages" or "Messaging" app on your phone, just as you would if you were sending any other text message.

2. Compose Your Text Message
Check the sweepstakes' rules or the marketing campaign's instructions to see what your text message needs to contain. Often, the mobile keyword is all you'll need to send.

3. Send the Text to the Short Code Number
After you have composed your text message, navigate to the area where you can enter the phone number to send the text message. Enter the short code number and press Send. If the short code is given as a word (like DISNEY), use your keypad to figure out which numbers go with which letters.

4. Unsubscribe From Receiving Unwanted Text Messages
Many times, sending a text message to a short code will automatically subscribe you to marketing messages from the sponsor. Sometimes these messages will include coupons or free products. However, if your mobile phone provider charges you per text message received, you may have to pay for these ads. Usually, texting "STOP" to the same short code will unsubscribe you. If that doesn't work, try texting "HELP" to the short code to see options. If neither works, check the sweepstakes rules or the advertisement that listed the short code for information about how to unsubscribe.

How to Stay Safe When Using Short Codes

One problem with short codes is that they can be misused by scammers. It's not always easy to tell which company owns a code or what exactly you are agreeing to when you send that text.

It's a good idea to double-check which companies are associated with which short codes, visit the ​US Short Codes Directory. In Canada, you can do a common short code search at Txt.ca . Scammers rarely use registered short codes, since registration costs money and is not anonymous, so these codes tend to be safer.

It's illegal to send spam through text messages, so if companies are sending more text messages than you agreed to or if they won't unsubscribe you, you can report the spam texts to the FTC. And don't be afraid to text STOP to unwanted text messages; unlike with email spam, this usually works with texts.

It's also a good idea to keep in mind that sending text messages may not be free. Depending on your service plan, there may be a per-text charge, or you may have a limited number of texts that you can send per month. Additionally, some companies may charge you a premium fee for entering sweepstakes by text. Check out standard vs. premium text message charges for more information.