According to research from Ofcom, 45 million people were targeted with scam calls and texts last summer – that's more than 8 out of 10 people.
It's a problem that has been increasing yearly and is partly due to the lack of security offered by mobile service providers. However, it's also a problem caused by users not being mindful of how and where they use their phone numbers.
It's easy for scammers to destroy your personal life with something simple like your number. It can be used to steal from you, commit identity fraud, and harass or blackmail you.
To help you avoid such a scenario, in this article, we'll explore how scammers get your phone number, how they use it, how to protect it from falling into the wrong hands, and much more.
There are three main ways scammers can get your mobile phone number – the dark web, number generators, and social media or web directories. With the dark web, when companies, platforms, or websites have data breaches, malicious people gain access to all its users' personal details – including phone numbers. They will then either use these details for identity theft or sell them on the dark web for other scammers to buy. Anyone on the dark web can purchase a specific individual's phone number and personal details, or even an entire dataset with thousands of people's information, making it a gold mine for scammers.
Utilising automated calls with number generators is also a popular method to get your cell phone number. Essentially, a programmed computer will generate and call phone numbers at random with the hopes of catching out an unassuming target.
Lastly, social media and web directories can host a wide range of information on their users. Every time you sign up to a social media platform or website, you will likely be asked for your mobile phone number. This can end up in a web or phone directory on the internet, which a downloadable web scraping software can find.
It may be pretty surprising how much additional information scammers and fraudsters can find just by knowing your phone number. For instance, searching your phone number on a web directory may also reveal information such as current and previous addresses, criminal records, and the names and addresses of your family members. They can also discover information such as:
- Email addresses
- Prior or ongoing legal issues (lawsuits, court cases, tax history, bankruptcy, etc.)
- Social media accounts
- Health records
- IP address
This list is far from exhaustive and just shows how a simple phone number leak can reveal information about your entire life.
There are a variety of ways that scammers can use your phone number maliciously, some of which you may have already experienced.
The most common way they use your number is through scam calls. They do this in an attempt to get you to reveal personal information such as your bank account or credit card details.
Typically, you will receive a call from the scammer who will impersonate your bank account provider, a government institution such as HM Revenue & Customs, or your mobile phone provider. They often stress things such as a late payment penalty fee or a tax rebate you are eligible for and will attempt to coerce you into revealing your personal or financial information or sending a payment to them.
Phone scams such as these are widespread, and it's crucial to understand that most institutions or companies will not ask for your personal information in such a manner. Once you know this, you can identify a scam call when it happens and avoid falling into their trap.
Scam texts work similarly to scam calls, except they're done via text message. Fraudsters will pretend to be a recognisable company or institution such as HMRC, a courier service such as DPD or Royal Mail, or even your banking provider.
They will send a text message asking you to click on a website link by pretending to be someone you trust. Once this link has been opened, it can infect your phone with malware which can track and steal your personal information or they will ask you to reveal your financial information, such as credit card details.
Stealing your personal accounts
Most banking apps, social media platforms, and websites will ask for your phone number when you sign up. This number will then be used as a method of multi-factor authentication, where they send you a text with a PIN code to verify your login or purchase. It's a great way to add a layer of security, but if scammers get access to your phone number, they'll have the keys to the kingdom.
The problem is that some text messages are not encrypted from both ends. These text messages can be hacked on the way to your phone or redirected to the scammer's phone number. So each time you receive a multi-factor authentication code, it will go to the scammer, allowing them to enter your apps and bank accounts.
Since scammers can use your phone number to find your email address, they can use this text message redirect technique to access your emails. This would require the hacker to click the 'Forgot Password' button on your email provider's website, enter your email address, wait for the confirmation code or redirect link to be sent via text message, and then change your email address password to their choosing. Once they are inside your email account, they will have access to all your linked accounts.
Spoofing your number
It is a slightly newer method, but it makes scamming people even easier than before. You may have come across it already, but spoofing is when your phone number appears on the caller ID, but it's not you on the phone line.
This scamming method is becoming increasingly popular as it can be quickly done using apps and websites. They simply enter the phone number they're impersonating, and the app will do the rest. They can call family members or friends pretending to be you, or vice versa, and trick you into revealing sensitive information.
There are some go-to types of phone calls that scammers will make to deceive you.
A compensation call is one in which the scammer will pretend to phone in from an accident claim company and declare that you are eligible for a sizable claim. If you've not been in an accident recently, it will be clear that this is a scam call. It's important not to engage in these scam calls as any information you give them could be used for identity theft. However, suppose you have been in an accident. In that case, be sure to call your insurance company about any claims you are eligible for.
One of the most common types of phone scams is scammers pretending to be HMRC. They often inform you of an unpaid tax bill, late payment fee, or a tax rebate. HMRC makes it very clear that they will never ask for your personal financial information over the phone; they will either send you a letter or send you a message via your Personal Tax Account. Therefore, if you get a phone call from someone claiming to be from HRMC, it's best to put the phone down and contact HMRC through the official numbers on their website if you want to verify the scammer's claims.
Fraudsters may call claiming to be a representative of your bank provider. They typically inform you of a problem with your card or account, such as your money being at risk or your card not working. To rectify this "problem", they will ask for your personal financial information, such as your card details and PIN, or ask you to transfer your bank account funds into a different account for safekeeping. It's a common way for scammers to pry information out of you, but it's important to know that banks will never ask for these details in such a manner.
While these tips won't undo any mistakes you've made in the past, they will undoubtedly prevent making things worse and ensure you don't fall prey to scammers in the future.
Be wary of who you give your phone number to
One of the best ways to protect your phone number against scammers is not to share it in the first place. By sharing your phone number with every website you sign up to, you'll significantly increase the chances of your data falling into the wrong hands.
One thing to consider is whether the website you're giving your phone number to has a secure connection. You can verify this by looking at the URL of the website you're on. The connection is safe if it has 'https://' before the website name. Another thing you can do to verify the website's security is to look to see if it has an SSL/TSL certificate. If there's a padlock next to the address bar – on most browsers, it is placed to the left of the URL – you can verify that the connection is secure.
Utilise a scam call blocker
You can download apps that automatically block known scam numbers from calling your phone number. The app has a rolodex of scam numbers. If one of them is used to reach your phone, it can either block the number entirely or play an out-of-service message which helps you avoid these callers altogether. While this can be useful, it won't be effective if the scammer spoofs their number.
Use a pay-as-you-go sim card or eSim
You're almost always asked for your phone number whenever you sign up for a website, app, or platform. Suppose you're registering for a bank account or signing up for an email address. In that case, it's essential to put in your actual phone number. However, if you're registering for a shopping platform or another miscellaneous website, using your real phone number could increase your risk of being scammed. This is where you can enter a secondary phone number.
Most phones these days come with two sim card slots. If one of the slots is free, you can put a pay-as-you-go sim card in there and use that phone number to register for non-essential websites and platforms. This way, if the phone number falls into the hands of malicious people, your actual phone number is protected.
If you don't have two sim card slots, you can use an eSim instead. An eSim is a digital sim card that does not need to be inserted into your phone. Many service providers offer it nowadays, but it is only compatible with newer phone models.
You can use a virtual number if an eSim or second sim card sounds like too much hassle. A virtual number is one that forwards calls to your real number. This means you never have to provide your real phone number to anyone. Services such as Google Voice will help you accomplish this, but there are many virtual number providers to choose from.
Hang up the phone
If you suspect you are on the phone with a scammer, hang up immediately. It's best to avoid sharing details with them, whether personal or not. Typically, if you hang up straight away, they tend not to call back.
If you're in the unfortunate situation where your phone number is already in the hands of scammers and is being used to scam people, there are a few key steps you should take to prevent any further damage:
- Immediately contact and notify your service provider of your situation. Ask them to either temporarily freeze your phone line or add a password/PIN code so that the scammer cannot use your phone number without it.
- Inform family and friends that your phone number is being used maliciously, so they don't fall victim to the scammer.
- Don't provide your phone number to any more websites or people that request it.
- In the event that your phone number is being used for illegal activity, document all the steps you've taken to get your phone number back and the people you've contacted. Also, take note of dates and times.
- Contact the Action Fraud helpline to report your fraud case.
- Update your phone number on all your accounts, such as your banking details, email addresses, essential apps, etc. This will help prevent the scammer from obtaining further information about you.