New Twists and Terms Add to Growing Cell Phone Scam List

Latest tricks – plus seven things you can do to avoid becoming a cell phone scam victim: Internet Scambusters #357

“Smishing” is the term for an already well established cell phone scam — phishing for personal information using SMS or text messages.

But cell phone identity theft is merely one of a whole host of tricks surfacing on mobile devices, which now number more than 3 billion worldwide.

We take a closer look at smishing and other cell phone scams in this issue — and offer seven tips on how to avoid them.

And now for the main feature…

New Twists and Terms Add to Growing Cell Phone Scam List

In the year or so since we last featured it, the cell phone scam has become a widespread online and wireless crime. And with around half the world’s population now using the devices, it’s not hard to see why.

Most of the tricks we highlighted in our earlier issue, The 10 Most Common Cell Phone Scams and How to Avoid Them, are still very active.

There are also several new cell phone scams, while one is becoming so common it has earned itself the dubious distinction of having its own name — “smishing”.


It’s easy to guess what “smishing” is all about. It’s the use of SMS messages — texting — as an aid to identity theft, which is still the number one cell phone scam.

The practice of sending text messages that claim your bank account or credit card has been blocked has been around for years, but obviously it still works well for the mobile phone scam artists, since police in both North America and Europe have reported a rise in incidents.

In one recently reported case, the victim received the following message:

—- Begin cell phone scam text —- (card blocked) Alert. For more information please call 1-866-942-5647. Thank you.

—- End cell phone scam text —-

A recorded message on that now-disconnected number told the victim someone was misusing her credit card number online, and asked her to key the card number for confirmation, so a new one could be sent.

The particularly sneaky element of this cell phone identity theft attempt is that “ncua” is the National Credit Union Administration, a frontline campaigner against cell phone scams, so the crooks clearly were trying to gain credibility by passing themselves off as the NCUA.

But, of course, the NCUA never, but never, asks people via a text message to key in their credit card numbers.

Sadly, this is not the only identity theft ruse used by the cell phone scam merchants.

For instance, in a case earlier this year, a fraud ring landed $22m of merchandise by using a cell phone industry insider to access users’ account details, which were then used to order extra equipment, which was subsequently sold by the thieves.

Nothing you could do about that — other than taking the usual precautions that you can find at our Identity Theft Information Center.

Malware and Cell Phones

And as they do with PCs, scammers use malware that you might inadvertently download onto your cell (sometimes by visiting infected websites, other times via downloads of ringtones) to harvest and transmit your personal information.

Malware is also the culprit behind a new variation of another cell phone scam term — “cramming” — which we featured in a previous issue: Slamming, Cramming and Other Top Scams.

Traditionally, cramming involves both regular and mobile phones and usually shows up as hefty and unexpected charges in your monthly bill.

Often these are racked up either by fooling you into dialing expensive premium line or overseas numbers, or by unwittingly signing you up online for what seems to be a free service but in fact contains a fine-print statement that you agree to pay a regular fee via your phone bill.

That’s bad enough. But with malware in play, this mobile phone scam has a wicked, new twist. In this case, the virus you install actually makes those expensive premium line and overseas calls without you even knowing.

Malware has also been used recently in parts of southeast Asia to transfer credits on prepaid phones to other mobiles, without the user knowing.

Other Ways Scammers Use Cell Phones

On the other side of the coin, we’re seeing more and more examples of how cell phones are being used as weapons in other scams.

That’s because crooks can hide behind the cloak of anonymity that mobile phones provide.

From untraceable numbers in bogus online classified ads through the use of cell phone cameras to take surreptitious security-related or even “peeping Tom” photos, criminals really know how to exploit this technology for their own benefit.

How to Protect Yourself From Cell Phone Scams

So, what can you do to protect yourself against a cell phone scam? Here are our top 7 tips:

  1. Install anti-virus software. Most of the big Internet security players have mobile versions of their software and most of them offer free trials.
  2. Scrutinize your bill every month. In particular look out for small payments, which the cell phone scam artist tries to sneak past you.
  3. Keep your cell phone number confidential when it is linked to your name, sharing it only with friends and relatives. Even think twice before putting it on a business card.
  4. Don’t use it for competition entries or other apparently “free” services. But, if you must do this, make sure you read every line of the fine print.
  5. Consider using “disposable” or prepaid cell phones, which limit your exposure to running up bills.
  6. Don’t take a cell phone number as proof of someone’s identity or, indeed, their honesty. If you can’t separately confirm the identity of someone who gives their cell number, don’t buy from or sell to them.
  7. Be vigilant when you see others using cell phones to take photos. If their behavior seems odd or unacceptable, try to memorize a description of them (don’t tackle them) and contact the police.

And, of course, take all possible steps to prevent your phone from being stolen from your purse, your pocket, your desk, or wherever — because that’s the quickest route to hefty phone bills (which you may be responsible for) or cell phone identity theft.

And if you’re an iPhone user, consider signing up for Apple’s MobileMe service, which includes the ability to immediately and remotely erase all the data from your iPhone in the event that it does get stolen. (We’ve just enabled this feature on our iPhones.)

If you order a new cell phone to be delivered by snail mail or delivery, insist on, and be prepared to pay for, a signature with the carrier on delivery. That way, it won’t be left at your front doorstep while you’re out.

Used properly and protected effectively, a mobile phone is a fantastic ally, which should be there to help you. After all, you can even read Scambusters on it!

But remember it knows a lot about you, already costs you a fair amount of money — and that makes it dynamite in the hands of a cell phone scam merchant!

That’s all we have for today, but we’ll be back next week with another issue. See you then!