SIM swap scam complaints rising annually, Federal Trade Commission says

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Your social media and banking apps could be hijacked and your phone shut down and taken over. The Federal Trade Commission tells the I-Team that cases of the SIM swap scam have been rising annually. In 2019, more than 700 people filed reports.

You may not know you are a victim until your phone signal is dead. The scam starts when criminals try to switch your phone service to their device then they can gain control of your life.

"I knew without a doubt what had just happened. And at that point I was just terrified of what was coming next," said Kendra Thornton, victim. "It was like my phone, but not my phone."

Thornton has been on ABC 7 in past reports offering expert travel tips. She owns Royal Travel and Tours.

"It was a very stressful five hours from basically 10:30 at night until 3:30 in the morning of canceling pretty much my entire life," she said.

It began when Thornton received an alarming text, saying her phone number had been added to a different device with the same carrier. That change also switched her SIM card information, like her social media and banking accounts, to that device.

Within 10 minutes her phone signal was dead. She was signed out of many of her apps and had no access to social media or banking.

"What saved us is we stayed up all night getting it sorted out to the best of our ability and the whole next day," Thornton said. "We didn't stop until we felt like we canceled every single credit card, every single bank account, everything has been changed."

Thornton said one of her bank accounts was compromised but she was able to stop the transaction just in time. She said the scammers even tried to take out loans and open credit cards in her name.

The I-Team exposed the SIM swap scam last year. Andrew Hoog of Now Secure explained that criminals can convince another carrier or your own carrier to issue a new SIM card to another device and gain access to all of your accounts.

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"Now they have access to your email, your bank accounts, to all your social media and all your contacts," said Hoog. "To all of the transactions you have ever done in the past. Basically they'll own your identity at that point."

Carriers do require a PIN to get a new SIM card or switch service but Hoog says sometimes representatives can be convinced by scammers that they are the real customer and they forgot their PIN.

Thornton said she had a strong PIN.

"Yeah, oh yeah. We had a pin that no one could guess. It had nothing correlated to our life, or birthdays or anniversaries or anything," she said.

Thornton's carrier, Verizon, told the I-Team it has been in touch with her, but cannot talk in detail about customer accounts, adding, "We encourage all customers to utilize an account pin number and port freeze."

A port freeze is when you call your carrier directly and you tell them to not allow you to switch your SIM or number to another phone or carrier. Some carriers would require you to go into a store in person with an ID to reverse the port freeze.

If you don't want to implement a port freeze, experts like Now Secure say you should be cautious about what you post on your social media accounts. The more details you post the better chance scammers can convince your phone carriers they are you to make the switch.
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