The 10 Most Common Cell Phone Scams and How to Avoid Them

The top tips on how to spot and avoid the 10 cell phone scams you’re most likely to encounter: Internet Scambusters #315

Today’s issue is about cell phone scams.

Cell phone technology, and its cheap availability, have made a huge difference in the way we communicate and the speed with which we can get and stay in touch.

But it provides a lucrative channel for scammers and snoopers, who use the technology to steal our money or our identity, and even to track our movements and listen to our conversations.

In today’s issue, we explain the 10 most common cell phone scams and show you the steps you can take to protect yourself.


The 10 Most Common Cell Phone Scams and How to Avoid Them


Cell phones have changed our lives, but so have cell phone scams…

This clever technology that keeps us constantly in touch with friends, relatives and even the Internet may be a boon, but it has also opened up more of the airwaves to crooks and snoopers.

In some cases, further technological advances have made it tougher for certain cell phone scams to work, but elsewhere the crooks are having a field day.

In this Scambusters issue, we identify 10 of the most common cell phone scams and the action you can take to avoid or reduce the risk of them.

1. Subscriber fraud

Subscriber fraud is simply an offshoot of identity theft. It is far and away the biggest cell phone scam, costing the industry an estimated $150m a year and causing untold anguish to the victims.

How it works: Someone steals your personal details and opens a cell phone account in your name, racking up huge bills that may land in your mailbox.

Action: Take all possible steps to protect yourself against identity theft. You can find more about identity theft in the Identity Theft Information Center.

2. Stolen or lost phones

An estimated three million cell phones are stolen or lost in the US every year! In the wrong hands they can be used to make unauthorized calls — one recent victim faced a $26,000 bill.

Alternatively, they can be mined for any personal and contact details stored on them. In other words, loss of your phone can be just a prelude for costly identity theft.

Action: Look after your cell phone as carefully as you care for your wallet. If you must use it to store confidential information, use password protection. See this article on cell phone theft and passwords.

3. Cloning

Crooks use scanners to read your cell phone identity, including the number and its unique serial number.

Then they program another phone with the same details and make calls at your expense.

Action: This is one area where the crime fighters have made progress, with new technology that makes it more difficult to scan for the number. There’s nothing more you can do other than keep a close eye on your bill.

4. Eavesdropping

Cell phone scam merchants may find it more difficult to scan for your phone ID but they can do potentially much more dangerous things — like listening in to your calls and downloading your phone usage records.

They can even track your phone to know where you are or where you have been at a particular time.

One piece of perfectly legal software can be secretly installed on someone else’s cell phone, then the crook — or concerned spouse — can dial in and snoop.

They can listen to your phone calls, download copies of text messages and numbers dialed, or even just silently activate the phone and use its microphone to monitor any nearby sounds or conversations.

And people who use Bluetooth short-range radio to connect a hands-free headset to their cell phone can be targeted by nearby scammers using Bluetooth to eavesdrop.

Action: If you don’t let your phone out of your sight and always password protect it, people can’t install software on it. But, to be on the safe side, always switch the phone fully off so it can’t be activated when confidentiality could be compromised.

Bluetooth users should un-select the “discoverable” option on their devices. See Airport Travel Scams: Watch Out For These Airport Tricksters for more info.

5. Ringtone cell phone scams

Apart from driving nearby people crazy with their awful sounds, users of downloaded ringtones could be exposing themselves to a couple of potentially costly cell phone scams.

Some tones — usually free ones or those exchanged via peer-to-peer software — have been hacked by scammers and can install a virus that either damages the phone or steals confidential information.

Second, you may get a text message inviting you to download a ringtone by returning another message or calling a 1-800 number. But when you do this, you may incur a hefty charge and/or unwittingly sign up for a monthly charge for services you don’t want.

Action: Get your tones only from established, reputable companies. And don’t return messages or calls from people or organizations you don’t know.

6. Bogus text messages

There are numerous variations of this cell phone scam but the bottom line is that you receive an unsolicited text message (which you may have to pay for!) which prompts you take some sort of action you’ll later regret.

Most common is what seems to be a message from your bank (this may also arrive as an automated voicemail) saying your account has been suspended and asking you to call a 1-800 number where your account number, PIN and other details may be requested. In reality, your identity is being stolen.

Another variation is a “pump and dump” ruse, where you receive a tip urging you to buy stock in a particular company. If enough people fall for it, the share price goes up and the scammers offload their previously worthless stock for a profit.

Action: If you get any message supposedly from your bank, call them on their normal number to check it out. And never buy stock on the basis of a single tip — from any source.

7. The old switcheroo

You get a call from what seems to be your cell phone company offering you what they claim is a better deal than your present one, or maybe even telling you your current deal is coming to an end and that you must switch.

In reality, it’s a competitor, another phone store, trying to switch you over to one of their packages, which may or may not be better than your current one. But since they’re trying to deceive you, assume it’s better not to do business with them.

Action: Ask the caller to give you some info about your current phone usage. If they can’t tell you when you made your last call or sent an SMS message, they’re not who they say they are.

8. Catches in the small print

Sometimes you find what seems to be a really sweet cell phone rental deal. You don’t find out you’ve been ripped off till the bill arrives, showing all sorts of additional charges you didn’t know about.

In one of the travel scams we reported previously, renters of temporary cell phones were taken in by a money-back deal, offering a refund of the rental fee when the phone was returned. But the credit card they provided was used to levy exorbitant charges for the calls themselves.

Usually these deals are perfectly legitimate and the sting is hidden away in the small print of the Terms & Conditions.

Action: Read the Terms & Conditions!

9. Vote with your phone

During the recent presidential election, people received text or recorded messages offering them the chance to cast their vote by phone, simply by pressing a key for each of the candidates.

Turned out this was a trick targeted at voters of one political persuasion or another, to stop victims from actually casting their vote for real.

Action: You can’t vote this way — yet. It’s also a Federal offense to trick people out of their votes.

10. Beware of these hoaxes

Finally, there are a couple of hoaxes related to cell phone scams to look out for:

* An email that warns against taking a call from a bogus engineer who asks you to key in 90# for a test of your cell phone. The message claims the caller can then use a scanner to collect ID numbers for cloning or to collect other confidential information. It’s an urban legend and untrue.

* You get a message warning you that cell phone companies will soon be releasing all mobile numbers to telemarketers and that to avoid them you must add your number to the “do not call” registry.

Sometimes, this is just a bit of mischief; other times they ask you to call a bogus number for which you will be charged an excessive fee.

Fact is, cell phone numbers are not publicly available for marketing in this way.

OK, we said ’10′ but number 10 wasn’t really a scam, was it?

So, let’s just add one more cell phone scam that applies to almost anything you want to buy — the Too Good to Be True deal. You know the sort of thing — the cell phone of your dreams, with all the latest gadgetry and doo-hickeys at an unbelievably low price. It’s almost always a scam.

Action: Don’t even think about it…


Before we go, we recommend you check out this week’s issue

of Scamlines — What’s New in Scams?

Next, you may want to spend a moment looking at this week’s
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Does Four-Wheel Drive Give You An Advantage In The Snow? Find out if you need to sell your two-wheel drive vehicle and buy a four-wheel drive vehicle in order to assure your safety in the snow.

Holiday articles:

Bah Humbug! The Importance of Christmas Stories: Find out how A Christmas Carol evolved into a classic.

Is Re-Gifting Really the Bane of Christmas Etiquette? You can do re-gifting in style, but only if you keep the following tips in mind.

Christmas Coloring Pages — and What to Do With Them: Explore examples of how to find Christmas coloring pages, and how to use these creations afterwards.

That’s it for today — we hope you enjoy your week!