A 10-digit mobile phone number can reveal a lot of personal information about its owner – shopping habits, private data and other identifiable evidence – but many consumers don’t protect that number like they should, according to cyber security analysts.
“We’re going to get to a point where your cellphone number is as precious as your social security number,” said Louis McHugh, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Just like social security numbers, cellphone numbers are unique, personal identifiers. Many people have had the same digits for decades. And while people are encouraged to protect their social security numbers to guard against identity theft, analysts told NBC5 Investigates that consumers often turn over their cellphone numbers to social media, retail and other companies without second thought.
“It’s a calling card back to you with zero protection,” McHugh said.
In the wrong hands, a bad actor can potentially do more harm with your mobile digits than your social security number.
“A phone number could probably more quickly get me to you than your social security number,” said Nick Percoco, Chief Information Security Officer at Uptake. “Many of the data breaches that have happened where those massive amounts of data gets exposed and is available to criminal groups, having your name and your phone number is really all it takes.”
NBC5 Investigates asked the experts what someone seeking harm could do with just a phone number. Matt Jakubowski is the Director of Hackers and Hunters for Uptake. His job is to think like a malicious hacker to find vulnerabilities in companies’ products.
“So an attacker can take that phone number…and just by sending a text message that’s crafted in a specific way, they could gain full access to your phone, which give access to photos, emails and your contact list,” Jakubowski said.
He added all the data on your mobile apps, such as banking and healthcare, could also be available for the taking.
This threat is very real.
Cyber security firm Kryptowire recently exposed that malicious hackers secretly collected private information off of some Android phones and were transmitting that data every 72 hours to China.
“(Your phone number) is valuable to a marketer. It’s valuable to a scam artist. It’s valuable to anybody that would want to get a hold of an individual and have someone actually answer a phone and talk to someone,” said Percoco.
According to government statistics, more than half of American households have ditched landlines and now exclusively use mobile devices. It’s more the reason, experts said, to protect cellphone numbers by using number-masking apps that allow you to add a second number. The analysts recommended to NBC5 Investigates apps like Google Voice or Sideline.
“Security is very much a cat and mouse game with the hackers being the mouse,” Jakubowski said. “Attackers are always one or two steps ahead trying to come up with a new thing.”