SIM swapping, also known as SIM theft, is a fraudulent way to gain access to someone’s mobile phone number. It happens when a criminal convinces your cell phone provider to transfer your phone number to a different SIM card, usually one in their possession. If they succeed, you are automatically at a disadvantage.
This is why. Scammers can swap your SIM from the comfort of their homes, as long as they have your personal details. On the other hand, a complete change will disconnect your line and you will only be able to claim it after visiting the operator in person and proving that you are the owner of the account.
Interestingly, the hacker does not even need to have advanced technical knowledge: a SIM card and a phone call to your provider are enough. Of course, they have to provide some personal information, but that’s pretty easy to get these days through social media accounts and even data exposed in large-scale breaches. Using this information, cybercriminals can trick mobile service employees into changing the number linked to your SIM card to one they have in their possession.
What do scammers gain by changing your SIM?
Your SIM is an entry pass to many essential services. You use it to receive calls and texts, and it’s most likely tied to your bank, email, and social media accounts for two-factor authentication (2FA) requests. With all this information at their fingertips, scammers could log into these accounts and empty them, as well as gain access to their contacts. That makes it easier for them to scam friends and family.
Two-factor authentication (2FA) is designed to increase security on the Internet. Instead of simply logging into online accounts with a password, 2FA requires you to enter a time-limited code before full entry is gained. It is widespread for the added security it provides, as malicious parties have to control both your password and your phone to break into your accounts.
Unfortunately, the strength of the system is also part of its weakness. Authentication codes are typically sent via emails, mobile phone numbers, and authenticator apps, meaning the entry falls to whoever owns your card or phone. This is different from fingerprints or facial identification, which require your physical presence. Cyber criminals know this and try to take advantage of this loophole when they access your mobile phone.
Government entities and carriers try to combat SIM swapping. The FCC announced late last year that it was writing rules to combat SIM transfer and transfer fraud. While that’s in the works, T-Mobile has already implemented some internal protocols to improve the system: Changing a SIM card will now require SMS verification or approval from two carrier employees instead of a single manager. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a step in the right direction.
What are the signs of a SIM swap fraud?
During a SIM swap, the sooner you can revert the changes to your accounts, the better. If you notice any of the following warning signs, contact your cell phone provider immediately as you might be under attack.
- You are locked out of your phone’s online account.
- Your phone loses service or is unable to receive calls or text messages even with good reception.
- Receive phone service notifications for actions you didn’t take.
How to avoid SIM swapping
The cost of a SIM swap could be catastrophic. Your best bet is to take precautions to avoid being a victim in the first place. Here are some steps you can take to stay safe.
1. Protect your phone and SIM
Most phones ship with some form of protection method, including PINs, passwords, patterns, fingerprint scanning, and facial recognition. The last two are quite common on modern devices, so enable them to add another layer of security.
In addition to your phone, you also need to protect your physical SIM. You can lock it with a numeric PIN that you have to enter every time you reboot your device. Your Android or iPhone device should allow you to create a PIN in Settings. Just make sure you don’t use your birth date or someone important to you.
2. Block your phone number with your service provider
Many network service providers offer Port Freeze or Number Lock to protect your mobile phone number from unauthorized transfer. Once activated, your number cannot be transferred to another line or carrier unless you remove the lock, either with a PIN or by walking into the store. If your carrier allows this feature, it’s a great way to strengthen your SIM card protection.
3. Use strong passwords and security questions
If you’re still using your birth date or middle name as your password, it’s time to stop. You should create a strong password that is almost impossible to guess, something with at least 12 characters, including upper and lower case letters, numbers, or special symbols. It is also good practice to use different passwords for different accounts so that a breach of one does not become a breach for all.
But how do you remember so many passwords? You don’t. Instead, take advantage of password managers to store passwords. In addition to making your passwords stronger, you should also try to select identity questions that even close acquaintances would have a hard time guessing.
4. Activate two-factor identification
2FA is another way to quickly add an extra layer of security to your accounts. Sign in to platforms that allow 2FA, like Google, turn it on, and you’re done. You can even make it more secure by removing the risk associated with SMS-based authentications. Use 2FA apps like Google Authenticator or Authy whenever possible.
5. Enable biometric authentication on your device
Passwords, PINs, and 2FA are great. But Face and Touch ID offer a level of protection that goes beyond those simply because they require your physical presence to work.
Whenever possible, use mobile apps and services that support two-factor biometrics. That way, even if thieves get your phone number, they won’t be able to bypass the biometric barrier.
6. Limit the amount of personal information you share online
Scammers can take advantage of even minute details to convince your carrier that they are you. So avoid posting your full name, address, phone number, and date of birth on public platforms. Also, resist the urge to overshare details of your personal life, such as your pet’s name, best friend’s location, favorite food, etc., on social media. You may have included them in some online security questions to verify your identity.
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7. Beware of phishing emails, text messages and calls
Phishing is almost as old as the Internet. It is a social engineering attack that is often used to steal user login credentials, credit card numbers, and other data. Phishing typically involves criminals trying to impersonate reputable institutions such as banks, government institutions, and health offices, assuming you won’t hesitate to answer your questions or examine your emails because you trust these organizations.
However, please note that your bank, government or any reputable health office will never ask you for your personal information online. If you receive these types of calls or messages, hang up or delete them even if they seem legitimate. You can always contact the agency to confirm the scope.