Alarming Things Hackers Can Do with Just Your Cell Phone Number
Your phone number is an easy-to-find key that can be used by hackers and scammers to unlock your personal data. They can also use your number in many other malicious ways...
I used to think that maybe, at best, a person could possibly find my name and address using my phone number. I was wrong. Recently, someone I don’t know used my phone number to find out the private details of my life, then emailed me everything they had discovered. With just my phone number this person found out where I live, my previous addresses, information on if I’ve ever been evicted, some personal financial information, a map of my neighbourhood, and my birth date. They even found the only speeding ticket I’ve ever gotten, way back in 2006. It was disturbing, to say the least. I felt, and still feel, violated. I reported the person to the social media site they contacted me through and blocked them, but is there more I can do?
After contacting some security experts for their take, it turns out that finding important details about someone’s life with just a phone number is incredibly alarmingly easy…and profitable. “In the wrong hands, your cell number can be used to steal your identity and take over almost every online account you have,” Veronica Miller, cybersecurity expert at VPNOverview, tells Reader’s Digest.
There are several ways a hacker can use a phone number to turn your life upside down. Here are some ways criminals can target you and how to protect yourself.
Data mining the easy way
The easiest way to use your phone number maliciously is by simply typing it into people-search sites like WhoEasy, Whitepages, and Fast People Search. These sites can reveal personal information about you in less than a few seconds, according to tech expert Burton Kelso.
People-search sites purchase your personal information and then sell it to people who want your data, like hackers with your phone number. The information found through these sites includes your address, bankruptcies, criminal records, and family members’ names and addresses. All of this can be used for blackmail, stalking, doxing, or identity theft. (Here are 10 online scams you need to be aware of.)
Rerouting your number
Another tactic is to contact your mobile carrier provider claiming to be you, says Miller. Then, the hacker can make it so your number routes to their phone. From there, the hacker will log into your email account. Of course, they don’t have your password, but they don’t need it. They just click “Forgot your password” and get the reset link sent to their phone that now uses your phone number. Once the hacker has access to your email account, it’s easy to gain access to any of your accounts. (This is why you should never link your phone number to your Facebook account.)
While many service providers have some security features to prevent scammers from switching phones, if the person has your phone number, they may be able to find enough information about you to get past the security questions.
There were nearly 26 billion scam calls in 2019, according to data collected by YouMail, and scammers are getting smarter. Now they are using a technique called spoofing to make it easier to scam you. Spoofing is when someone makes your phone number pop up on a caller ID when it really isn’t you that’s making the call.
For example, a scammer once spoofed my daughter’s phone number to make me think she was calling me. The goal was to trick me into answering the phone. It worked, because what if it was an emergency and my daughter needed me? When a scammer gets you to pick up, they have the chance to trick you into whatever scheme they’ve come up with, like tricking you into giving them your credit card information.
It doesn’t take much to spoof a phone number. There are apps and websites that allow scammers to simply type in a phone number and make a call. It’s super easy and quick, which makes it appealing to scammers. (If you ever hear this phrase, it’s a phone scam.)
Scammers can also use your phone number to send you malicious text messages. This type of scam is called “smishing,” according to Ray Wallsh, digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.
In these texts, scammers send links that infect your phone with malware that can steal your personal information, or they can straight-up scam you by pretending to be your bank, the IRS, or your doctor. Posing as someone you trust, the scammers will then try to trick you into giving them personal information and credit card numbers. (Here’s when you should never “accept cookies” on a site.)
How to protect yourself
All of the experts I contacted recommended that to combat your phone number being misused, share it as little as possible. “Many apps and services require a cell number for verification at sign up. By handing your data to these apps, services, and businesses, you increase the likelihood that your cell number will be passed on to third parties and data aggregators,” said Wallsh. Limit giving out your phone number to friends and family and your doctor.
For everyone else, you need a virtual number that can forward calls to your phone so you don’t need to give anyone your real number that is linked to your personal information. You can set up a virtual number for free through Google Voice or through services like Burner.
Also, never click on links sent to you in text messages, even if they look like they were sent from a trusted contact. If your bank, credit card company, doctor, or service you use contacts you through text, call them using a verified number from their website to confirm the communication was truly sent from them to avoid malware or scams.
To protect yourself from hackers rerouting your number, ask your mobile carrier to add an extra layer of security like a password or PIN number to your account, advises Miller.
All of these steps can help keep your personal information private, but it only works to a point. Your personal data has probably already been sold to people-search sites and while you can send these sites requests to remove your information, it’s a huge task. Plus, the site may simply repost your information later.
So, in the end, there may not be a way to completely prevent hackers and scammers from getting access to your phone number. Knowing what someone can do with your number, though, can help you avoid scams and protect your information from being more widely spread.
Next, check out 20 cyber security secrets hackers don’t want you to know.