Here’s What Hackers Can Do With Just Your Cell Phone Number
Scammers can use your phone number to impersonate, steal from, and harass you and others. Here's what to do if your info is compromised.
I used to think that maybe, at best, a person could possibly find my name and address using my phone number. I was wrong. Recently, someone I don’t know used my phone number to find out the private details of my life, then emailed me everything they had discovered. With just my phone number this person found out where I live, my previous addresses, whether or not I’ve ever been evicted, some personal financial information, a map of my neighbourhood, and my birth date. They even found the only speeding ticket I’ve ever gotten, way back in 2006. It was disturbing, to say the least. I felt, and still feel, violated. I reported the person to the social media site they contacted me through and blocked them, but is there more I can do?
After contacting some security experts for their take, it turns out that finding important details about someone’s life with just a phone number is alarmingly easy… and profitable. “In today’s world, it is extremely easy for hackers to wreak havoc on your life using your cell phone number,” says Hari Ravichandran, CEO of consumer cybersecurity company Aura. To protect your sensitive information, you should always think twice before sharing your phone number—especially in a public setting. Here are some ways criminals can target you, and what to do if a scammer has your phone number.
Mine your private data
The easiest way to use your phone number maliciously is by simply typing it into people-search sites like WhoEasy, Whitepages, and Fast People Search. These sites can reveal personal information about you in less than a few seconds, according to tech expert Burton Kelso.
People-search sites purchase your personal information and then sell it to people who want your data, like hackers with your phone number. The information found through these sites includes your address, bankruptcies, criminal records, and family members’ names and addresses. All of this can be used for blackmail, stalking, doxxing, or identity theft. (Here are 10 online scams you need to be aware of.)
Reroute your number
Another tactic is to contact your mobile carrier provider claiming to be you, says Veronica Miller, cybersecurity expert at VPN overview. Then, the hacker can make it so your number routes to their phone. From there, the hacker will log into your email account. Of course, they don’t have your password, but they don’t need it. They just click “Forgot password” and get the reset link sent to their phone that now uses your phone number. Once the hacker has access to your email account, it’s easy to gain access to any of your accounts.
While many service providers have some security features to prevent scammers from switching phones, if the person has your phone number, they may be able to find enough information about you to get past the security questions.
Spoof your number
The RCMP reports that fraud cases have surged since 2020, and scammers are getting smarter. Now they are using a technique called spoofing to make it easier to scam you. Spoofing is when someone makes your phone number pop up on a caller ID when it really isn’t you that’s making the call.
You may have noticed phone calls from numbers with your same area code, or identical to those you call often. When a scammer gets you to pick up, they have the chance to trick you into whatever scheme they’ve come up with by using specific phrases to sound genuine or fooling you into giving them your credit card information. Sometimes it’s to trick you into answering a few questions, and when they have your “yes,” or “no” recorded, they might use that in voice-activated scams. (If you hear this phrase when you pick up the phone, it’s a scam.)
It doesn’t take much to spoof a phone number. There are apps and websites that allow scammers to simply type in a phone number and make a call. It’s super easy and quick, which makes it appealing to scammers.
Send you a texting scam
Scammers can also use your phone number to send you malicious text messages. This type of scam is called “smishing,” according to Ray Walsh, digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.
In these texts, scammers send links that can infect your phone with malware or that can steal your personal information, or they can straight-up scam you by pretending to be your bank, the CRA, or your doctor. By posing as someone you trust, the scammers will try to trick you into giving them personal information and credit card numbers. (Check out more expert advice on how to prevent identity theft.)
Impersonate you or send you spyware
“Just as it is easy for a hacker to redirect a cell phone number from one carrier to another, it is also easy for hackers to send a message to a consumer to gain access and impersonate the individual,” says Ravichandran. Often, hackers will send you a seemingly innocuous message that implores you to click a link to a fake website. This is called a phishing scam. Ravichandran says, “The website may appear legitimate, however, it could record your information to send to the hacker.”
If you have ever visited an unknown website, clicked on a strange link, or connected an unfamiliar USB into your device, Ravichandran says these activities “open a consumer up to accidentally downloading malware. Hackers can infect your phone with software, leverage your data, and even extort you.” (Make sure you never do this when using public Wi-Fi.)
What to do if a scammer has your phone number
If the worst happens and a scammer gains access to your phone number, you still have options:
Contact your service provider immediately and explain the situation.
If need be, ask them to put a temporary freeze on your line so that scammers can’t use your number.
Contact people you know to warn them that your phone may have been compromised.
To protect yourself from being held responsible for any potential crimes committed using your number, document all steps you’ve taken and everyone you’ve contacted, and keep track of the dates.
Report your phone lost or stolen (if that’s what happened).
Update your contact information immediately on all relevant accounts (bank, social media, your kids’ school) to protect more of your information from being compromised.
How to protect yourself against hackers
Here are some other actionable steps to take if a hacker gets a hold of your information:
Use another way of getting in touch
“If you ever get an unsolicited SMS from a contact you don’t recognize (or even from your own number), you should treat it like a suspicious email asking you for money,” says Ryan Toohil, CTO of Aura. Don’t ever click on a link if there is one.
If your phone receives “no signal” or says, “emergency calls only,” even after restarting the phone, use another phone to call your provider and have them check the status immediately, advises Paige Hanson, chief of cyber safety education at NortonLifeLock.
If you receive a suspicious message but still think it might be from a friend or colleague, Toohil says to “reach out to them to confirm via another means—whether that be calling their phone, Slacking them, emailing them, etc.”
Protect your privacy
“Do not publish your phone number on your public profile on social media,” cautions Hanson. She says to always be discreet about mentioning cryptocurrency on social media. “Cryptocurrency is one of the most sought-after forms of currency in this type of crime.” Review your credit card bills, bank statements, and phone bills. If something doesn’t add up, report it immediately.
And because phone hackers will try to access your other accounts, “Do not use the same usernames and passwords across several websites. Make your passwords long, complicated, and difficult to guess,” says Hanson. (Here are the absolute worst passwords you could possibly choose.)
When in doubt, don’t click
Phone hijacking can also happen via phishing attacks. Hanson warns against clicking on suspicious links. “Malware embedded in links can secretly download on your device. When in doubt, open a browser and type in the address you wish to visit.” And if you suspect a text is malicious or phishing, delete texts immediately.
Next, find out why you need to stop commenting on those viral Facebook memes.