Cybercriminals love to poke around the Internet searching for personal information that they can use to make an unsuspecting person their very next victim. But if someone asked you what personal information on the Internet was the most dangerous to exposing you to identity theft, how would you reply? Would you say it was your bank account information, your home address, your mother’s maiden name, or perhaps your family members’ personal information? If you answered any of these options, you’d be wrong. Because to a cybercrook, the most important single piece of info they can get their hands on is your personal phone number.
Surprised? You’re not alone. But the fact is, your personal number is considered a key that will unlock volumes of your personally identifiable information (PII) that a cybercriminal can use for a variety of fraudulent activities, up to and including identity theft. And that includes all of the different types of identity theft, such as synthetic, medical and financial. The point is, you don’t want to make it easy for a cybercriminal to access your PII – you want to make it as hard as possible to get their hands on your personal information. That’s why the first step to secure your information is to remove your phone number from the Internet.
The consequences of a cybercriminal getting access to your personal number can be devastating. In 2020, for example, a group of hackers from the UK were able to steal over $100 million from high-level celebrities, sports stars, musicians and many others through a fraud known as SIM Swapping. Because there aren’t any more removable SIM cards, and the hacker is able to access a variety of your personal information, they can easily convince a carrier to reroute your SIM to a new phone – which happens to belong to the hacker. Now, they’re able to take over your phone and view your emails, texts, contact information and passwords. They’re able to listen to your conversations, access your bank account and more. And that’s just one type of fraud you can be subjected to.
Some cybercrooks will stalk you, because they’ll have access to your location through your phone’s GPS. If they want to enter your home to commit theft, they’ll know when you’re out. Another risk is having the cybercriminal spoof your Caller ID, and contact your colleagues and family members, easily acquiring their credit card info for help with some type of “emergency.” As you can see, different types of fraud can be implemented and the consequences can be emotionally and financially damaging.
Surprisingly, it all starts with you. You enter your phone number when signing up for social media accounts, credit accounts and other Internet-related activities. Often people put it in their social media posts as well, and once it’s revealed, anyone can get it. Your apps also distribute your phone number, unless you deny permission when downloading and setting them up.
Another way cybercrooks get your phone number is through data breaches, where they hack into a database and steal key information like your personal number. And what most people don’t realize, is that data brokers, also called people-search sites, gather your personal information (including your phone number) and legally sell it to anyone who wants to purchase it. Sites like Spokeo, Intelius and Pipl collect personal information and then store it until it’s sold.
The key to avoiding all the problems and damage relating to a cybercrook getting your personal number is to remove it from the Internet. Google is the first place that people go to to look for something, and that includes cybercriminals. Google doesn’t create any information, rather, they gather it from different areas of the web and their first stop is often people-search sites. Opting out and deleting your information will require a considerable amount of time and effort, as there are more than 100 people-search sites and each one has their own rules and regulations regarding opting out.
Social media is another area of the Internet to scour, deleting any reference to your personal number on your profile or in your posts. Another area where your number might appear is on third-party websites. These could be former employers, sites where you’ve posted articles or podcasts. If there’s no easy way to remove your number, write to the website’s owner and ask them to delete it.
You can also remove your number directly from Facebook, by following the guidelines on their help page. The same goes for Twitter, Instagram and other sites. Many people also choose to place their number on the National Do Not Call Registry. This not only helps to reduce robocalls, it will also help keep your number off their call lists.
Because phone apps are a common source of distributing your number, make sure you read their privacy agreement before you sign on. You don’t want to allow any apps to distribute your number and other personal information. As a word of caution, never give out your number to strangers via links that are placed in phishing emails or through scam robocalls that ask you to verify your number by saying or entering it in the phone.