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SIM Swapping. Scammers are taking over our smartphones…and text messages too!

SIM Swapping: How scammers take over your phone without laying a hand on it

Did you know that through a dirty trick called SIM swapping, a scammer could take over your phone and, with some additional information about you, do major damage to your finances, your identity, and your life?

The worst part? Your phone stays in your possession during the "heist." You might not realize it right away, and by the time you do and start to wonder what's going on, it might be too late to stop them.

This isn't hype or over exaggeration—it's a serious type of crime that's on the rise in U.S.—the FBI and Justice Department are warning citizens to be aware of SIM swapping and start paying attention to their phone numbers.

This SIM-swap scam—sometimes also referred to as SIM-splitting or port-out splitting fraud—puts your smartphone number in the hands of criminals, and if they've done some pre-work on you beforehand—following you on social media or buying your email addresses and passwords online (that have already been stolen or compromised through a data breach), they can drain your accounts or steal your identity…before you catch on.

What is a SIM Card?

A SIM—and that stands for Subscriber Identity Module—is a small computer chip that turns your iPhone or Droid into a texting and calling device. The chip is portable and transferable—meaning you can take it out and put into a new phone, as long as it takes the same-size chip (which it probably does). And these days, they're almost all nano chip cards.

The typical phone customer (maybe even you) rarely thinks about their SIM card. You're simply excited to have a new phone with exciting new features, including text messaging, making calls, and an internet connection. And when the time comes to get a new phone, you're SIM card can simply be changed over.

And you'd think that as long as your phone stays in your possession, you're safe, right?

Wrong. That's where the SIM card swap swindle comes into play.

Here's how SIM swapping works.

  • A scammer targets you and your phone number. Why? They want to see if they can access your accounts and steal money and/or your identity.
  • Bad news. The SIM bandit scammer may have already stolen other personal information about you, including your name, address, and bank account numbers. They've done their homework and have a profile on you.
  • Going after your cell phone number. If they can get your cellphone number, it gives them more digital ammunition to attack your identity, because your phone number is linked to many of your accounts.
  • The scammer calls your phone provider (Verizon, AT&T, etc.) and, pretending to be you, tells them, "I need to have my phone number switched to a new SIM card in my new phone.” If they're smooth and lucky enough—and you don't have a PIN tied to your account (more on that later), they'll succeed.
  • You give up control of your number…and more. In the worst-case scenario, the scammer has used your number and other personal information to steal your identity for his own gain.

Know what to look for.

Based on the reports and stories that have happened to victims of a SIM swap, here are some signs of trouble that could alert you to potential danger. And if you see any of them, contact your cellular provider immediately to prevent fraud:

  1. You can't make a call or send a text (and you're not receiving any). If you didn't know about SIM swapping you might just think your phone is acting up. Now that you do know, you should consider that your phone number has been hijacked. Take action fast!
  2. You may get an email from your cell provider. You may get an email, based on the email address linked to your account, that your SIM card has been activated on a new phone, at your request. (Yup, that would be a clear hint, wouldn't it?)
  3. You can't log in to your bank or other accounts. If the scammer also had your email and password, they might have taken over your accounts, using your phone number to get around what's called two-factor verification.

Be prepared.

Don't let a swindler steal your phone number right from the phone in your hand. Here are a few preventative steps.

  1. Most cellphone providers require (or allow) customers to set up a personal identification number to access their account to make changes. Be sure you have a PIN tied to your account. If your provider does its job right, a scammer could not simply call and arrange a SIM swap.
  2. Use two-factor verification (2FA), but not in a form that involves your cellphone number. Most banks and credit card companies offer a few 2FA options. It's worth checking into.
  3. Never assume your phone is simply acting up if you stop getting texts or calls. Get a hold of friend and have them text or call you as a test. If that doesn't work, get in touch with your provider immediately to find out what' going on.

Stay up to date on scams: Follow the Easy Prey podcast.

You can learn how to stay one step ahead of fraudsters and other con artists by listening to the Easy Prey podcast, hosted by Chris Parker. The podcast features fascinating and enlightening interviews with journalists, authors and experts in cybersecurity and other scam-related topics.

You can find the Easy Prey podcast on your favorite media channel or at easyprey.com.