USA TODAY US Edition - - MONEY - Steven Petrow @steven­petrow

No mat­ter what Amer­i­cans do to pro­tect their dig­i­tal pri­vacy, es­pe­cially on our hand­held de­vices, it’s im­pos­si­ble to keep up with new threats. Now, there’s a new risk to our pri­vacy and se­cu­rity: Our cell­phone num­bers are be­ing used in­creas­ingly by in­for­ma­tion bro­kers as the win­dow to per­sonal in­for­ma­tion that’s kept by nearly all cor­po­ra­tions, fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions, and, yes, so­cial me­dia net­works.

Among those sound­ing the alarm bell is pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor and for­mer FBI agent Thomas Martin, who re­cently wrote a blog post ti­tled, “Your cell phone num­ber is your new So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber.” Martin’s mes­sage was clear: We are way too lack­adaisi­cal about keep­ing our num­bers pri­vate.

“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 cell­phone num­ber? My guess is that you would read­ily tell them the ten-digit num­ber,” he writes.

Well, too many of us are likely to di­vulge our 10-digit num­ber in a flash, as mil­lions of us do in stores and on­line on a daily ba­sis. Your cell­phone num­ber, unique to you, is the gate­way to your iden­tity. It pro­vides an en­trance to all the data con­tained on your phone and can con­nect your other in­for­ma­tion to you — your email ad­dress, phys­i­cal ad­dress— ev­ery­thing.

Phone num­ber iden­tity theft is a big prob­lem. Last year, ap­prox­i­mately 161,000 con­sumers had mo­bile phone ac­counts taken over, com­pared to 84,000 in 2015, ac­cord­ing to Javelin Strat­egy & Re­search in Pleasan­ton, Calif.

Once Martin told me all this, I started to pay at­ten­tion to how of­ten I’m asked for my cell num­ber, ei­ther in per­son or on­line. Amazon does. Net­flix, too. My bank. My health in­sur­ance com­pany. And just the other day, shoe re­tailer John­ston & Mur­phy de­manded it when I was buy­ing a $69 belt. I balked, and they let me buy the belt any­way — but when I went back to re­turn it a few days later, the clerk said: “You can’t re­turn it with­out pro­vid­ing your cell num­ber.” I ex­plained I didn’t want it in the com­pany’s data­base, so she made up a num­ber to type in, but not be­fore smil­ing at me and say­ing with a scary smile: “We want all the in­for­ma­tion about you we can get.”

Yes, I know. Of course, when I called the re­tailer in Nashville, vice pres­i­dent of e-com­merce Heather Marsh told me ask­ing for a phone num­ber is all about the con­sumer’s con­ve­nience. It makes shop­ping faster be­cause it’s “eas­ier to get (ac­cess) to your records” if you’ve made a pur­chase there be­fore. Once in the data­base, your phone num­ber be­comes another piece of per­son­ally iden­ti­fy­ing data. But un­like our So­cial Se­cu­rity num­bers, “this num­ber is not reg­u­lated, and no com­pa­nies are man­dated to keep it pri­vate,” Martin ex­plained.

Our mo­bile phone num­bers are a “tasty tar­get” for at­tack­ers these days, says JD Sherry, chief rev­enue of­fi­cer at cy­ber se­cu­rity com­pany Re­me­di­ant. Most Amer­i­cans have got­ten wise to phish­ing as an en­try point to email breaches, but Sherry is ea­ger to dis­cuss an emerg­ing trend called SMiShing (pro­nounced “smishing ”). “This is the act of send­ing a text mes­sage con­tain­ing ques­tion­able links to web­sites that might not be in your best in­ter­est to visit,” he said.

“The bad guys,” as Sherry calls the hacker class, want to steal your cre­den­tials or in­stall ma­li­cious soft­ware so, for in­stance, they can log into your bank­ing site as you. Then, we all know what can be done.


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