WHY YOUR CELLPHONE NUMBER MAY LEAD TO YOU BEING SCAMMED
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.