Has someone stolen your cell phone number and is now pretending to be you, receiving and making calls and sending texts in your name? Is phone number theft even possible? The answer to that second question is a definite “yes.” It’s the latest identity theft trick sweeping the country.
According to research firm Javelin, more than 160,000 people had their numbers stolen last year, almost double the figure for the prior year. When used on another phone, it not only gives the hijackers access to your contacts but also, potentially, to your banks or credit card accounts. Recent reports suggest some people have already suffered big losses as a result.
Stealing and using a cell phone number is easier than you might imagine. All the crook needs are your number and a few key pieces of information about you. Then they contact your phone service provider, claiming to be you. They say they have a new phone and ask for the number to be switched to them. Often, they claim the original phone has been stolen. This encourages the phone service provider to act quickly to switch the number to the new device, especially if the crook buys the new phone from them.
What’s neat about this trick, from the scammer’s point of view, is that it doesn’t matter what security you have on your old phone. Once the number is transferred to their new phone, they’re in complete control — no need for an access passcode and it probably allows them to use any code generator you use for two-factor authentication. Mobile phone companies are supposed to have security procedures in place to check the identify of someone who wants to switch their number to a new phone. But clearly these procedures don’t always work.
To make this crime even worse, new evidence is emerging that information brokers are trading cell phone numbers and attaching them to data files they hold about us. Some security experts suggest your cell phone number is, in effect, a substitute for your Social Security number — used to uniquely identify you. The problem is that just about everyone you do business with online these days asks for your cell number, meaning that, unlike Social Security numbers, it won’t be as closely safeguarded. Security specialist and former drug enforcement agent Thomas Martin was recently quoted by the USA Today newspaper as saying: “If someone you had just met asked you for your Social Security number, you would likely not give it to them. What if the same person asked you for your cell phone number? My guess is that you would readily tell them the ten-digit number.”
Five Key Steps
To reduce the risk of falling victim, or at least to minimize the effects, here are some actions you can take:
1. Think twice about providing your cell number to anyone. Many online forms ask for it but it’s usually not mandatory. Likewise, if someone asks you for it, offer an alternative like your email address.
2. Don’t share your number online either — especially on Facebook, Twitter or other social media. Once you do that, an ID thief can put together a pretty convincing story to pass themselves off as you.
3. If you must share a mobile number, get a virtual one, which uses an app on your phone. This isn’t difficult to do. For example, Google offers a free virtual phone service here:
4. Don’t store passwords on your phone. Or, if you do, keep them in a file protected by another difficult password. Don’t allow any app to automatically insert passwords for you.
5. Check if your phone service provider offers account password protection. If they do, use this. It would stop SIM-swaps from working.
How will you know if your number has been hijacked? Quite simply, your phone will stop working and you’ll likely get a message saying you can only make emergency calls.
This happened last year to a tech expert from the Federal Trade Commission. Read about his experience here:
If you don’t use your phone that often, the first you know might be a big bill or a call from a debt collector.
What to do if you’re a victim
If this happens to you, contact your cell phone service provider immediately. Keep their number easily accessible, especially if they have a separate number for their fraud department. You may need to contact other companies with which you do business and take other security steps if the crook has taken on debt in your name.
Learn more about what to do here:
Also, alert your contacts to watch out for emails and texts being sent out in your name.
As we become more and more dependent on our mobile devices, the risk of cell phone number theft is likely to grow. Be on the alert!