Scammers Hijack Phone Numbers to Drain Financial Accounts

NBC Universal, Inc.

Scammers are using victims’ phone numbers to drain their accounts, but there are ways to protect against the scheme.

Victims who reached out to NBC4 Responds say their phones stopped working without warning – no calls or texts coming in or going out.

“I was on the phone with all my friends, and the line just went quiet,” Abdul Musa said.

“My phone service cuts out while I'm on a call with my sister,” Myron Keith Gibert Jr. said.

When the signal didn’t come back, the victims contacted their wireless providers. 

“They told me, yes, that there were two changes on the same day to my SIM card,” Emmanuel Taveras said.

“It was, ‘Oh, well, I see the number’s been requested to be ported out,’” Chante’ Lee said.

The cellphone providers said they had received requests allegedly from the victims to transfer their number to another carrier. 

“This was done without my permission,” Gibert said.

In all five cases, the victims were not the people who made those requests. The carriers eventually realized their customers were scammed.

“They even acknowledged in that chat that a fraud had been committed,” Patti Griffin said.

It really is sort of ironic that they're using a security designed to protect individuals’ privacy against them.

Chuck Brooks, cybersecurity expert

What happened to them is called SIM card swapping or port-out theft, two techniques with the same purpose: to hack into accounts, steal information and wipe financial accounts clean. 

“When I checked my Coinbase account, my entire account, they defunded it,” Taveras said.

Thieves stole $8,000 worth of crypto from his account. They got $10,000 from Lee’s mother’s Coinbase account.   

“She's 70 years old and she's still working,” Lee said. 

Thieves especially like stealing cryptocurrency because it’s harder to trace, but authorities say every financial account is a target. 

Crooks call a mobile carrier’s customer service or go in-person to the carrier’s retail store and impersonate a legitimate customer, asking for that customer’s phone number to be transferred to a new phone or SIM card. 

“They do this first by finding out background – usually, not always – finding background about what you may have overshared on social media,” cybersecurity expert Chuck Brooks said.

Scammers can learn a lot about people from their accounts: email, phone number, names of relatives, where they went to school.

Once scammers have control of someone’s cellphone number, they can reset their account passwords using two-factor authentication, a security feature that sends a code to the account holder's phone number, which the scammer now controls. With the code they can hijack accounts and drain them. 

“It really is sort of ironic that they're using a security designed to protect individuals’ privacy against them,” Brooks said.

Law enforcement is taking notice.

“Recently, we started to notice a significant rise in the number of complaints that we're receiving,” FBI Special Agent Al Murray said.

From 2018 to 2020, the FBI received 300 complaints resulting in $12 million lost to victims. In 2021, the number of complaints doubled with more than $68 million lost. 

“Most of these cybercriminals are sort of the tip of the spear,” Murray said. “They're always coming up with new schemes. We find a way to stop them.”

To protect against the schemes:

  1. Don’t ever share your phone number or address on social media.
  2. Don’t boast about how much money you made from investments.
  3. Download a two-factor authentication app like Duo so even if the scammer has your phone number, he won’t have access to your apps.

“I'm poor,” Griffin said. “I have no money and I thought it was going to be the best revenge because they're not going to get anything from me.”

But they did get a little money from Gibert, and for him, the entire experience has been a wakeup call.

“It was very tedious going through every single account that I own and removing my phone number and setting up different methods to, like, retrieve passwords so that I can better protect myself for future situations,” he said.

Wireless carriers encourage their customers to set up security features like a PIN to prevent changes to accounts.

After weeks of calls with their providers, all five victims regained their numbers.

Stolen phone numbers can be reported to the Federal Communication Commission and the FBI.

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