Dear Black Bag Confidential Reader,
How often do you give out your phone number to a complete stranger? I bet it’s more often than you think…
Every time you call a utility company or an online retailer and ask them to look up your account — or when you visit your local grocery and forget your rewards card — you hear the same question, “What is your 10-digit phone number?”
This is one of the quickest ways to search for an account, since each person’s phone number is unique. And unlike a Social Security number, people typically share their phone number without even thinking — but is this safe?
Our privacy is constantly under attack via our computers and other technological devices, and the risk has drastically increased in the last few years because of our dependency on handheld devices. Cybercriminals know how much Americans rely on their smartphones and have figured out ways to steal your personal information simply by accessing your cellphone number.
It amazes me how many people eagerly share their cellphone numbers with retailers that claim they don’t use this information for marketing purposes. While that may be true, we have seen hackers break into the databases of major companies like Citigroup and Yahoo and release the personal information of millions of customers, including phone numbers.
Text messaging is another way hackers can gain access to your phone. The same way criminals send phishing emails containing links to dangerous websites, they can also send text messages with similar links asking you to confirm your phone number. If you click on them, you may be giving the hacker complete access to all the personal information stored on your smartphone without realizing it.
Consider how many accounts your cellphone number is associated with — bank accounts, social media sites, corporate rewards programs and any online retailers with which you’ve made purchases. Now imagine a cybercriminal getting their hands on all the information in those accounts just by having your phone number.
Scary, isn’t it?
Well, here are five steps you can take to prevent having your cellphone number compromised:
1) Get a virtual number. Use Google Voice (or a similar app). I also recommend creating a separate Gmail address that is only tied to this phone number and doesn’t contain any of your personal information. That way if a criminal does get your cellphone number and hacks into this Gmail account, they won’t learn any other personal details.
2) Don’t share your number with retailers. When ringing you up, cashiers will often ask for your phone number or ZIP Code for marketing purposes. Simply let the employee know that you are not willing to share that information. This shouldn’t be a problem — I doubt the store will decline to sell to you just because you don’t want to share your phone number. And when you buy something online, leave the phone number field blank if possible.
3) Get a second phone number. Give one phone number to family and friends and use the other number for everything else. Not only will this help you protect your identity and privacy, it will also help you screen calls from unwanted solicitors.
4) Learn your account numbers. I know the majority of people use their phone number to identify their rewards accounts at different retailers. However, I also know that most stores assign you a rewards account number, which I recommend memorizing. The next time you want to get credit for your purchase, just give the cashier your account number and avoid sharing your phone number altogether.
5) Use two-factor authentication for all your accounts. This is a very good cybersecurity habit because it makes it more difficult for a hacker to gain access to any of your accounts. Additionally, many utility and retail companies allow you to set up a PIN to make changes to your account. I recommend calling your utility companies and asking if you can add a PIN to your account for security purposes.
Even though some of the steps outlined may seem slightly inconvenient or take a little getting used to, it would be wise to follow them. Just think of all the accounts — from banking to social media — that someone could access with a little bit of personal information and your phone number.