Smishing- The Latest Identity Theft Threat

By Consumer Watchdog Mary Schwager

The newest threat when it comes to electronic identity theft is no longer your computer! It's your phone and your wireless tablet! The incredible boom of text and high tech apps are posing cyber risks. What are the latest scams? What should you be on the lookout for?

More than 300 million people in the U.S. have wireless devices and may use mobile app's to bank, trade stock, even track their tax refund. Phones carry so much personal info, John Wells from CTIA the Wireless Association says it's like having a computer in your pocket. "It does make it a somewhat alluring target for scammers."

How do the scams work? You've heard about bad guys online "phishing" for personal info- but in the wireless world it's called "smishing". Meaning criminals try to swipe personal info via "sms" text messages.

One popular recent scam involved texts claiming to be from a credit union which asks you to call a number. When you do, Jamie de Guerre from Cloudmark, a cell phone security company, says that's when trouble starts. "When you call the number they're actually looking to scam you out of your personal information."

"it could be as serious as a significant financial loss if they are able to give the attacker information that allows them to access their bank account and transfer money out of their account," says de Guerre.

Another cutting edge scheme? You get a text claiming to be from a friend asking you to download an "incredible media player".

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When you do, security experts say it doesn't work, the screen just blinks. Problem is: you may have just downloaded mobile malware! Which could allow hackers to monitor your accounts, or send high priced text messages from your phone-running up your bill. Cloudmark's Kevin San Diego warns watch out ! "The amount of malware targeting mobile handsets has increased significantly in the past year."

Verizon Wireless and the Texas attorney general recently filed a lawsuit against several companies it says lured people into an expensive premium text message service.

David Kwong says his app store account was hacked. First he got this email written in Chinese saying his credit card was changed. Then he got this bill for purchases he did not make. "I can't believe that somebody somewhere could hack into my account because I keep all my information secure." Or at least he thought it was. After he complained to his provider he got a refund.

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Wells says the wireless industry admits it's a race to keep up with the scams and cell phone companies are monitoring suspicious activity. "we take a lot of extraordinary steps on a daily basis to make sure that doesn't happen and if it does in some way shape or form to find a way to prevent it from happening again."

How can you protect yourself?

  • When you download an app check out the reviews and make sure it seems reputable.
  • If an app asks for a lot of permissions to access your information, especially for the ability to send text messages: that's a big red flag-don't download!
  • If you get a text from what appears to be your bank -- don't respond.
  • Be suspicious of any text asking you to text, email or call in personal information. Some cell phone providers allow you to forward them questionable texts so they can investigate.

The wireless industry says it does all it can to keep you safe, but Wells reminds us it also relies on customers to use common sense. "Just as we learned in the PC world how to take measures to protect ourselves, a lot of those same steps and lessons can be applied to wireless to keep yourself out of trouble."

Verizon customers hit with bills for high priced text messages can contact the company for information on how to apply for a refund. Always make sure your phone is up to date on the latest software updates so you've got current protection against new threats. There are a number of anti virus app's out there you can download that may help. To safeguard against old fashioned thieves who may swipe your phone, always lock it so you need a password to open it.

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