Help Me Hank: Criminals target cellphone numbers for identity theft

A new form of identity theft

By Hank Winchester - Reporter, Kelley Kosuda - Producer, Kayla Clarke

DETROIT - Smart phones are used for almost everything.

Taking pictures, accessing bank accounts, having private conversations and thieves are aware of this.

Thieves know information stored in phones is valuable and now they’re trying to steal it from thousands of miles away. 

It happened to Laura Bourdeau.

“I never thought I would feel unsafe, cyber-wise, but this is like cyberterror,” Bourdeau said. 

Laura was texting a family member when she got a message that said her phone wasn't registered with her carrier.

“It was totally out of the blue,” she said.

When she called, she said they had no record of her name or number. 

Things started to get worse. Bourdeau realized she couldn't get into her social media accounts after the passwords had been changed.

The same went for her bank account app. The security questions had also been switched to a foreign language. When she was able to get into the app with her fingerprint, she noticed an attempt being made to take $10,000 out of her account.

Luckily, Bourdeau acted fast, calling to freeze her account. 

“All of the sudden, my phone number I had for 25 years, 25 years were totally gone and given to someone else,” Bourdeau told Local 4. 

So what happened? Bourdeau called her carrier’s fraud department, who said her number was ported. 

For this term, we reached out to the managing partner and IT expert at N1 Discovery in Troy, Scott Bailey. 

Bailey said porting is when you want to keep your cellphone number but transfer it to another network or carrier.

“Hackers have now found a way to exploit that to their benefit,” Bailey said. 

While it’s normal for a regular person to do this, hackers have found a way to use porting to their advantage. Hackers can contact your mobile provider, telling them your phone was stolen and ask for the number to be ported or transferred to another provider and device.

Once this happens, your world is unlocked and the thieves can take over once they're inside. 

Bourdeau said it felt like the thieves were literally inside the guts of her phone. Hackers were gathering her information, wiping her phone clean. 

This isn’t the only way hackers are getting in. If you’re searching the web and a pop-up comes onto the screen of your phone, if you click on it, they can get in.

Hackers are also using phishing emails, hoping you’ll click on a link that will then install malware onto your device. 

According to Andy Arena, former head of the FBI in Detroit, it’s happening more often. He said, hackers are one step ahead of law enforcement and the technology is getting more sophisticated. 

Bailey said if you’re worried you’ve been hacked, take your devices to a IT company to scan for viruses and malware. Once hackers are in, they’ll create a backdoor to come back in and continue to steal your information even the key strokes you’ve used. 

It’s important to remember, everything is tied to your email account. Make sure that password is different than others. 

Protecting yourself is key:

  • Pick strong and unique passwords with a combination of letters and numbers.
  • Contact your cellphone provider and ask about port authorization. Some will have you provide a unique 4-number code, that you’ll have to enter if you’d like your number to be ported. 
  • Call your company if your phone suddenly switches to “emergency call service only.” That’s what happens when your phone number has been transferred to another phone.
  • Steer clear of phishing attempts through emails and texts. Don’t click on links you don’t recognize! Even if they come from financial institutions about your account. Call your bank directly.
  • Go to this site: FTC.Gov if you think you’ve been hacked. They’ll give you a list of things to do to protect yourself. 

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