Here’s What Hackers Can Do with Just Your Cell Phone Number
Scammers can use your phone number to impersonate, steal from, and harass you and others. Here's what to do if your info is compromised.
What can someone do with your phone number? I recently met a woman who was scammed when she was newly widowed. Immediately after the death of her husband, many people were in and out of her home, ostensibly to offer help. One of those people helped himself to the new widow’s personal information, including her cell phone number. Among other things, the scammer used her number to gain access to her social security benefits, which he transferred to a different beneficiary.
“In today’s world, it is extremely easy for hackers to wreak havoc on your life using your cell phone number,” says Hari Ravichandran, CEO of consumer cybersecurity company Aura. To protect your sensitive information, you should always think twice before sharing your phone number—especially in a public setting. Here are some ways criminals can target you, and what to do if a scammer has your phone number.
Other ways to keep your personal information safer include knowing how to tell if your computer has been hacked, practicing online security, learning about doxxing, using good passwords, and making sure two-factor authentication is always enabled. You should also read up on how to tell when there’s someone tracking your cell phone and the signs that someone has stolen your identity.
Mine your private data
The easiest way for scammers to use your phone number maliciously is by simply typing it into a people search site, like WhoEasy, Whitepages, or Fast People Search. These sites can reveal personal information about you in less than a few seconds, according to tech expert Burton Kelso.
People search sites purchase your personal information and then sell it to people who want your data, like hackers. The information found through these sites includes your address, bankruptcies, criminal records, and family members’ names and addresses. All of this can be used for blackmail, stalking, doxxing, social media hacking, or identity theft.
Reroute your number
Another tactic is to contact your mobile carrier provider claiming to be you, says Veronica Miller, cybersecurity expert at VPN overview. Then, the hacker can make it so your number routes to their phone. From there, the hacker will log into your email account. Of course, they don’t have your password, but they don’t need it. They just click “Forgot password” and get the reset link sent to their phone that now uses your phone number. Once the hacker has access to your email account, it’s easy to gain access to any of your accounts.
While many service providers have some security features to prevent scammers from switching phones, if the person has your phone number, they may be able to find enough information about you to get past the security questions.
Spoof your number
Still wondering, what can someone do with your phone number? There were nearly 26 billion scam calls in 2019, according to data collected by YouMail, and scammers are getting smarter. Now they are using a technique called spoofing to make it easier to scam you. Spoofing is when someone makes your phone number pop up on a caller ID when it really isn’t you that’s making the call.
You may have noticed phone calls from numbers with your same area code, or identical to those you call often. When a scammer gets you to pick up, they have the chance to trick you into whatever scheme they’ve come up with by using specific phrases to sound genuine or fooling you into giving them your credit card information. Sometimes it’s to trick you into answering a few questions, and when they have your “yes,” or “no” recorded, they might use that in voice-activated scams.
It doesn’t take much to spoof a phone number. There are apps and websites that allow scammers to simply type in a phone number and make a call. It’s super easy and quick, which makes it appealing to scammers. (Thankfully there are also apps for privacy and security.)
Send you a texting scam
In these texts, scammers send links that can infect your phone with malware or that can steal your personal information, or they can straight-up scam you by pretending to be your bank, the IRS, or your doctor. By posing as someone you trust, the scammers will try to trick you into giving them personal information and credit card numbers.
Find out why stores ask for your phone number at checkout before you give it out next time.
Impersonate you or send you spyware
“Just as it is easy for a hacker to redirect a cell phone number from one carrier to another, it is also easy for hackers to send a message to a consumer to gain access and impersonate the individual,” says Ravichandran. Often, hackers will send you a seemingly innocuous message that implores you to click a link to a fake website. This is called a phishing scam. Ravichandran says, “The website may appear legitimate, however, it could record your information to send to the hacker.”
If you have ever visited an unknown website, clicked on a strange link, or connected an unfamiliar USB into your device, Ravichandran says these activities “open a consumer up to accidentally downloading malware. Hackers can infect your phone with software, leverage your data, and even extort you.”
What to do if a scammer has your phone number
Jorg Greuel/Getty Images
If the worst happens and a scammer gains access to your phone number, you still have options:
Contact your service provider immediately and explain the situation.
If need be, ask them to put a temporary freeze on your line so that scammers can’t use your number.
Contact people you know to warn them that your phone may have been compromised.
To protect yourself from being held responsible for any potential crimes committed using your number, document all steps you’ve taken and everyone you’ve contacted, and keep track of the dates.
Report your phone lost or stolen (if that’s what happened).
Update your contact information immediately on all relevant accounts (bank, social media, your kids’ school) to protect more of your information from being compromised.
How to protect yourself against hackers
Now that you can answer the question, “What can someone do with your phone number?”, here are some other actionable steps to take if a hacker gets ahold of your information:
Use another way of getting in touch
“If you ever get an unsolicited SMS from a contact you don’t recognize (or even from your own number), you should treat it like a suspicious email asking you for money,” says Ryan Toohil, CTO of Aura. Don’t ever click on a link if there is one.
If your phone receives “no signal” or says, “emergency calls only,” even after restarting the phone, use another phone to call your provider and have them check the status immediately, advises Hanson.
If you receive a suspicious message but still think it might be from a friend or colleague, Toohil says to “reach out to them to confirm via another means—whether that be calling their phone, Slacking them, emailing them, etc.”
Protect your privacy
“Do not publish your phone number on your public profile on social media,” cautions Paige Hanson, chief of cyber safety education at NortonLifeLock. Hanson says to always be discreet about mentioning cryptocurrency on social media. “Cryptocurrency is one of the most sought-after forms of currency in this type of crime.” Review your credit card bills, bank statements, and phone bills. If something doesn’t add up, report it immediately.
And because phone hackers will try to access your other accounts, “Do not use the same usernames and passwords across several websites. Make your passwords long, complicated, and difficult to guess,” says Hanson.
When in doubt, don’t click
Phone hijacking can also happen via phishing attacks. Hanson warns against clicking on suspicious links. “Malware embedded in links can secretly download on your device. When in doubt, open a browser and type in the address you wish to visit.” And if you suspect a text is malicious or phishing, delete texts immediately. And here’s how to stop spam texts and stop robocalls.
Tempted to take a break from your online life? Here’s how to disappear completely from the internet.
Additional reporting by Alina Bradford.
- Hari Ravichandran, CEO of consumer cybersecurity company Aura
- Ryan Toohil, CTO of identity theft insurance company Aura
- Burton Kelso, tech expert
- Veronica Miller, cybersecurity expert at VPN overview
- Ray Walsh, digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy
- Paige Hanson, chief of cyber safety education at NortonLifeLock
- PR Newswire, “Americans Hit by Over 58 Billion Robocalls in 2019”