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Is Your Mobile Phone Account Safe?

October 06, 2016

You may have heard that mobile phone theft is on the rise. When you imagine how this could happen to you, do you envision your phone being physically stolen from your car or at a coffee shop? It turns out that’s the least of your worries. Far more profitable to thieves, and potentially damaging to you, is theft of your mobile phone (or other mobile device) account.

Imagine, for instance, if a criminal walked into a retail mobile device store and claimed to be you, using a fraudulent driver’s license featuring your name but their photo. The crook could cancel your current account, upgrade to multiple new devices, and simply walk out of the store with the devices—and with hundreds of dollars in charges applied to your account.

The thief could then use the new devices, but more likely they’d be sold on the black market as burner phones. And you’d have to engage in time-consuming identity theft recovery, including working with your phone company to eliminate the fraudulent charges, restore your account, and acquire a new phone number.

Even worse, the criminal could engage in what’s known as a “SIM swap” or “SIM splitting” scam. Instead of walking into a retail store, the thief first calls you and pretends to be a representative working for your mobile phone company. The caller asks you for personal information such as the last four digits of your Social Security number. If you give the information, they then call your phone company and switch your SIM card to a new device.

What can a thief do with your phone number and a SIM card in your name? A lot, actually. The most troubling is the potential for them to gain access to your financial accounts that require two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication is when an account requires you to verify your identity through a second means in addition to your password, most frequently through an SMS (or text) message. In the case of a SIM swap scam, the second of those two factors is often a mobile phone where the thief is waiting for the code to access your account.

To protect your mobile device accounts, ask your carrier what type of added protections they offer to protect you from mobile account theft. The major carriers provide a variety of optional security measures such as PINs and passcodes that must be used with any in-person, online, or phone conversations. Also be sure to examine your monthly mobile device bills to make sure no extra charges appear. And contact your carrier immediately if your phone suddenly does not work properly.

Of course, you should still be careful not to lose your mobile device or leave it out in the open where it could be stolen. But it’s just as important to be on the lookout for theft of your mobile account, which is a more troubling, and growing, type of identity theft.

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