Sometime in May 2016, the chief technology officer at the Federal Trade Commission — tagline, “Protecting America’s Consumers” — was herself the victim of a growing type of identity theft. She found out when she was talking on her cellphone and right in the middle of the call, her phone stopped working. She had another cellphone on the same account and tried that one. It, too, had no signal. So she called her carrier.
Turns out, someone claiming to be her had walked into a store and ordered a pair of brand new top-of-the-line iPhones, most likely in order to sell them. The store charged the phones to Lorrie Cranor’s account and transferred the numbers from her Android phones to the new ones — thereby deactivating Cranor’s Androids. The scammer walked out of the store with the phones, and Cranor found herself with a bill for two new iPhones. (The company eventually reversed those charges after an investigation into what had happened.)
How Cellphone Identity Theft Happens
If you’ve been to a store owned by your carrier — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc. — you’ll have noticed that the store rep always asks you for photo ID and the last four numbers of your social security number. But in Cranor’s case, the scammer went to a third-party store that sells phones for several plans. These stores don’t always use both means to verify identity. In Cranor’s case, the scammer used a fake ID with Cranor’s name and the scammer’s photo. The scammer also knew Cranor’s phone numbers; these are readily accessible for less than $5 over the internet using a reverse search. Just think of a number and see who owns it.
According to Cranor, in January 2013, 1,038 incidents of cellphone account identity thefts were reported and by January 2016, the number was 2,658. And, she says, the actual numbers are probably much higher. In some cases, rather than hijack a cellphone account, thieves simply used the victim’s details to open new accounts with other carriers — another good reason to check your credit card statements, along with the call records on your cellphone bills. Other scammers use the victims’ mobile identity to steal financial information.
How You Can Protect Yourself
Set an Extra Security Layer
Each major carrier has a procedure whereby you can protect your account by requiring a passcode or PIN before changes are made to it, whether online, by phone or in a store. ThisPasscode or PIN is separate from the one you can set on your handset, which protects access to the phone itself (for example, if it’s stolen) but not to your account.
- If you have AT&T: Ask for Extra Security or simply turn it on via your online account.
- If you have Verizon: Ask to set a PIN or set one yourself in your online account.
- If you have T-Mobile: Call the company or visit a store and set up a Customer Care Password.
- If you have Sprint: You’re already protected. Sprint requires you to set a password and security questions when you set up your account.
Don’t Fall for Phishing Scams
You get a call from someone claiming to pretending to be with your cellphone carrier. The person asks for codes from your phone or other personal information. Do not offer this information. Instead, call your carrier using the number on your bill or on the carrier’s website.
Don’t Just Toss Your Old Phone
Anyone could pick it up and access your personal information — your stored phone numbers, emails, texts and much more. Instead, wipe the phone clean all of your personal information by restoring it to factory settings. Here’s how to do that. Once you’ve checked that no personal info remains, your best bet is to donate your phone or recycle it. Doing either also helps protect the environment.