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Consumer Crackdown: Hi-tech scam targets cellphone sim cards

Feds say losses totaled $68 million in 2021
Published: Mar. 30, 2022 at 12:50 PM EDT
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InvestigateTV - Cellphones are the pipeline to personal information for many, but according to the FBI, hackers are tapping in through the sim card in mobile devices to steal critical data.

The scheme is called “sim card swapping” and experts say it’s the latest hi-tech scam.

“If I’m a crook who wants to rob you of money, instead of going into a bank, it’s a lot easier to get access to your information, by simply getting access to your phone,” Ira Rheingold of the National Association of Consumer Advocates said.

The FBI said the scam starts when someone contacts you by phone or email pretending to be a representative from your mobile phone carrier. Once the fraudster gets your personal information, they call your service provider and report a lost or stolen sim card.

According to the feds, the cybercriminals will tell the customer service representatives they “forgot their pin and need a new one”. The scammer will try to convince the phone provider to transfer the victim’s phone number over to a new sim card and device. In some cases, the FBI said mobile phone carrier employees have been tricked into giving up information.

“Customer service reps are generally overworked, underpaid and not terribly skilled in dealing with the possibility that someone’s talking to them, and that person could be a fraud,” Cybersecurity expert Adam Levin said.

The FBI said “sim swapping” cases skyrocketed in 2021 with consumers reporting $68 million in losses compared to just $12 million in losses in 2020, 2019 and 2018 combined.

In addition to the pandemic, Levin said one of the reasons for the uptick in “sim swap” scams is more people using multi-factor authentication and bad actors getting access to it.

“That’s where you log onto a site and then you’re sent a code to a trusted device which normally goes to your phone,” Levin said. “So, the bad guys know this as well as the good guys. So, they want to get in on the action”.

The FBI has these tips to prevent getting “swapped”:

  • Avoid posting personal information like your phone number and address online.
  • Use a variety of passwords to access online accounts.
  • Don’t advertise information about financial assets and investments

Rheingold urged consumers to be vigilant. “The convenience you have while using your phone is great there are risks that come along with it and you need to take necessary precautions to mitigate those risks,” Rheingold said.

If you suspect you are a victim of “sim swapping”, call your mobile carrier, change your online account passwords, contact your financial institution to place an alert on your account, and report any suspicious activity to police or the FBI.