Navigating SIM swap attacks: Prevention and response

Kfir Yeshayahu

September 09, 2022

  • # Biometric Security
  • # Fraud Prevention
  • # Identity Protection
  • # Account Protection

Unless your phone gets stolen, your SIM card is safe in your possession. But scammers don’t need to access it physically to hijack your phone number and intercept important calls and texts. 

In fact, fraudsters can trick your carrier into remotely assigning them your phone number — also known as a SIM swap attack. That means they can see every text you receive, including authentication messages. They can then use that information to log into your accounts, access your money and sensitive data, and even commit identity theft.

Keeping yourself safe online is all about educating yourself and protecting your data proactively. Here’s everything you should know about SIM swapping fraud and how to prevent it from happening to you.

What is a SIM swap?

SIM swapping is a crafty scam in which a cybercriminal dupes your phone carrier into transferring your phone number to a SIM card they control. That means you won’t get any calls and texts that go to that number — they will. Not only is it a huge headache, but it lays the groundwork for more fraudulent activities since cybercriminals can impersonate you much more easily. 

How SIM swapping works

Understanding the steps scammers take to access your SIM card can help you develop effective strategies to avoid it and protect your digital identity. Here's a closer look at how these scams unfold:

  1. Gathering personal information: Scammers start by collecting your sensitive data, often through sophisticated phishing schemes or data breaches. They might disguise their emails or calls as communications from trusted sources, such as your bank or service provider, to trick you into revealing confidential information like passwords and PINs or the answers to security questions. These fraudsters often craft persuasive messages and calls, making it challenging to differentiate them from genuine communications.

  2. Deceiving the phone carrier: Once they have your personal information, the criminals contact your carrier to impersonate you. They usually claim that your SIM card is lost or damaged to convince the carrier to transfer your number to a new SIM card, which they control. 

  3. Taking over your identity: With control over your phone number, the attacker can intercept calls and messages, including those for password recovery from various accounts, like your bank account and other sensitive accounts. This step is serious — it allows the scammer to reset your password and bypass even well-secured accounts, leading to further scamming and theft.

The dangers of SIM swapping

SIM swap fraud poses severe risks. It lets scammers bypass security measures like two-factor authentication (2FA), one-time passwords (OTPs), by going to your accounts, requesting a password reset, and receiving the 2FA code, allowing them to gain access to your sensitive accounts and information.

In a best-case scenario, SIM swapping is an inconvenience because you have to work with your carrier to change or reclaim your number. At its worst, it can uproot your whole life with identity theft and financial fraud — which can take years to amend. 

How common is SIM swapping?

In 2020, the FBI received 320 reports of SIM swapping, and that number grew to 1,611 in 2021, which could mean that this scam is becoming more common. These numbers are actually much higher as most people don’t report SIM swap attacks. There have also been a few high-profile cases in the media, including one in which ex-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey became a victim. Even the most technologically literate people can experience SIM swapping. Awareness and preventive measures are crucial for everyone.

4 signs that you’ve been a victim of SIM swapping

Keeping an eye out for potential scams and hacks can help you spot them before they have serious impacts. Here's how to tell if you've been SIM swapped:

  1. No phone service: Suddenly losing service on your mobile device is a glaring red flag. If you can’t make calls or send texts, it could mean someone’s hijacked your phone number.

  2. Account lockouts: If you start getting locked out of your online accounts, especially those using your phone number for authentication, it's a sign that someone could have changed your passwords through SIM swapping.

  3. Unexpected transactions: Unusual transactions from your bank account or changes in your digital wallets could indicate that someone else is controlling your accounts.

  4. Notified activity elsewhere: Receiving alerts about login attempts or account activity from unfamiliar locations is a sign that someone’s trying to scam you.

These signs are crucial indicators of SIM swap fraud, which means you should take immediate action to regain control and secure your digital identity. Contact your phone carrier, change passwords, and monitor your accounts closely. Acting quickly could prevent long-term consequences.

How to prevent SIM swapping attacks: 5 tips

Defend yourself against SIM swapping before it happens — not after. Here are strategic security practices to enhance your digital defenses:

1. Beware of phishing attempts

Phishing, a common tactic fraudsters use, can trick you into divulging important information like passwords. Avoid clicking on suspicious links in emails and text messages, especially those posing as your phone carrier or bank. These phishing emails, calls, and texts trick you into giving away the information a scammer needs to do a SIM swap.

2. Don’t post personal information online

Oversharing on social media can inadvertently aid cybercriminals in SIM swap attacks, so keep private information just that — private. Be cautious about revealing sensitive information that can lead to identity theft. Don’t share your location or any other personal details someone could use to access your accounts.

3. Protect your cellular account

Strengthen your phone carrier account's security. Use strong, unique passwords and add a PIN or passcode for additional protection. This step helps prevent fraudsters from accessing your account and initiating a SIM swap.

4. Use biometric authentication

Rethink your reliance on SMS-based 2FA. Opt for more secure methods like IronVest, a unique authentication app that uses facial biometric authentication to let you access 2FA codes. Fraudsters will never be able to access your codes because they’ll need facial biometric authentication — and since they’ll never have the same face as you, your accounts will stay secure. 

5. Bank and mobile carrier alerts

Set up alerts with your bank and mobile carrier for any unusual activities. These alerts notify you of any suspicious actions, allowing you to act quickly in case of a SIM swap attempt.

What to do if you're a victim of a SIM swap

If you’re the target of SIM swap fraud, take action as soon as possible so the problem doesn’t get worse. Here are the steps to take as soon as you become aware of an attack:

  1. Contact your phone carrier: Reach out to your phone carrier immediately. Inform them about the potential SIM swap and work to regain control of your phone number.

  2. Change passwords: Update the passwords and security questions for all your important accounts, choosing strong, unique passwords for each. If a hacker did learn your login information, they wouldn’t be able to use it anymore.

  3. Use robust authentication methods: Implement non-SMS-based authenticators, like biometrics or physical security tokens, to secure your accounts against future attacks.

  4. Alert financial institutions: Notify your bank and other financial institutions that you may be a victim of a scam. Set up monitoring for suspicious transactions or unauthorized access so if anything happens, you’re the first to know.

  5. Report to authorities: Contact local law enforcement and report the incident to the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center. They’ll track fraudsters and potentially recover any losses.

Empower your security with IronVest

Don’t wait until you’re the victim of a scam or hack. Implement the proper security measures now. 

IronVest's innovative solutions can help. With this security super app, you can use a virtual phone number that can’t be traced back to you — so if scammers do access it, they can’t do any damage. IronVest also uses decentralized biometric authentication to protect your login information and prevent fraud. Pair these two features and you’re on your way to a safer online presence.

 Identity theft protection starts — and ends — with IronVest.

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