While taking steps to help protect your cell phone from hackers is essential, it’s also important to know that thieves have found another way to access your information: by opening a cell phone account in your name or directing your number to their own phone. Having control over your phone number can give the thieves access to everything from your email to your bank accounts.
It’s a growing problem. According to one study, last year in the U.S., there was a 79 percent increase in what’s known as cell phone account fraud, resulting in 680,000 victims and millions of dollars in losses.
“It can be financially devastating,” says Paige Schaffer, CEO of Global Identity and Cyber Protection Services with Generali Global Assistance, one of the world’s largest individual crisis protection providers. “This is a type of fraud that can go undetected for many months.” You may not know that your account has been hacked until your phone stops working or your bank account has been depleted.
Plus, cell phone companies generally aren’t liable for these crimes—you, the consumer, are. “Cell phone companies don’t have the liability to the extent that banks and credit card companies do,” says Schaffer.
How Does This Crime Occur?
A cyberthief calls your cell phone company to falsely open up a “new account” in your name, which is easy to do. Threads of your private information area already exist online—your address, your phone number, your birthday—and a criminal may have enough pieces in hand to convince the cell phone company that he’s legit.
Stealing your existing cell phone number can be the first step to a cybercriminal getting into your bank and credit card accounts—or applying for more credit cards, all without your knowledge. The two-factor authentication security process, in which a verification code is sent via email or text, becomes useless, because the thief can “authenticate” with their own phone.
What You Can Do To Help Protect Yourself
Fortunately, says Schaffer, there are steps you can take to cut off thieves’ access.
Freeze Your Credit Information
Cell phone providers don’t go through the large credit bureaus to do credit checks before opening an account. Instead, they may use the National Consumer Telecom & Utilities Exchange (NCTUE). Freeze your information with them so it can’t be accessed. While you’re at it, it’s also a good idea to freeze your credit info with the big three bureaus—TransUnion, Equifax and Experian—in case a crook gets access to your cell phone account and tries to open a credit card in your name.
Protect Your PIN
Make sure you have a PIN for your cell phone account and that you’re the only one who knows it. As with other passwords, you should change it regularly—at least once a year. If your cell phone carrier experiences or has experienced a data breach, you should change your PIN immediately. Still, change your PIN even if there was a breach with a different account, since you don’t always know what other information thieves have accessed.
Review Your Cell Phone Bills
It’s easy to pay your cell phone bill with a quick click or through an auto-payment. But it’s a good idea to review your cell phone bill carefully, and to pay attention to credit card and banking statements. Always be on the lookout for erroneous or suspicious activity.
Buy A USB Security Key
A physical USB security key adds two-factor authentication to your computer and cell phone. It’s a higher level of security than verification codes sent via text or email, because the second factor is the key itself.
Adopt These Cybersecurity Habits
Shaffer suggests these tips to help curb cybercrime in general.
Watch For Phishing Emails
Beware any email—even from a recognized company—that prompts you to click to their website from an embedded link. Don’t click on the email (or any attachments) or fill out anything from your email address. Always go directly to the site.
Know The Companies You Do Business With
If you get a call from your computer company claiming that your cloud account has been compromised, you’re probably being scammed. These kinds of calls are likely a phishing attempt (known as “vishing” when it’s done over the phone). While credit card companies may call you to report suspicious activity, most companies will not. Either way, call back on the company’s official phone line to verify.
Have Identity Theft Protection
Identity Theft Protection, available through the GEICO Insurance Agency, monitors your vital information and will get an alert if your credit is being checked or if any of your information pops up on the dark web. And if your identity is compromised, Identity Protection can help restore your standing.
Be Thoughtful About Sign-ups
When you shop online, check out as a guest instead of filling out information for an account with them, and don’t let them save your credit card. Be selective about giving out your information.
Don’t Give Out Your Social Security Number
Your social security number is a unique piece of personally identifiable information (used by credit agencies plus other financial and government institutions, such as the IRS), and unlike an email address or password, it’s not something that can be easily changed.
Guard Your Personal Details & Passwords
Your phone number, your date of birth, maiden name, first car—these are the details that criminals can use to form a separate “you” identity. Be careful about where you input this information online. Also, keep passwords protected, change them regularly and don’t share them.
Don’t Share Your Banking Information
Online banking information, including passwords, should be kept private. To add layers of security, ask that your banking or financial institution communicate via multifactor identification protocol.
Use Different Email Addresses
Have one email address that you use for online banking and financial transactions and another one for social media and personal accounts. That way, your public profile email isn’t linked to information that could be compromised.
Don’t risk a close call with your cell phone account. Get identity theft protection through the GEICO Insurance Agency, which can help you restore your identity in case of a breach.
Read more: Warning Signs Of Identity Theft
By Ellise Pierce