Identity theft is on the rise. Here are some ways to protect yourself: NPR

NPR’s Michel Martin talks with Eva Velasquez, President and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, about the growing threat of SIM swapping.



MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you’re one of the millions of people who use your smartphone to pay bills, send money to family, and just do banking, listen up. This month, the FBI issued a warning about a rise in a type of cell phone scam called SIM swapping, saying it had cost consumers more than $68 million in losses the past month. last year. And according to FBI figures, it’s 15 times more likely to happen to you today than it was a few years ago.

So what is SIM swapping and how can you protect yourself? We called Eva Velasquez to help us. She is President and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Centre. It is a non-profit organization whose goal is to help consumers reduce their risk of becoming a victim of identity theft. And she is with us now. Eva Velasquez, thank you very much for joining us.

EVA VELASQUEZ: I’m so happy to be here, and I’m glad we’re covering this really important topic.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, could you just explain what it is? I mean, how do scammers steal our SIM card information from our smartphones?

MARTIN: Well, it’s a bit complex. And just to set the level here, your SIM card is this tiny little electronic chip in your phone and it tells your phone which number it answers. And it’s got a lot of information, but it’s transferable to another phone, and that’s how you can upgrade or buy another phone if yours is damaged and keep your phone number, photos, you know , your music. But just like phone number porting, SIM porting is – it’s really easy to do if someone other than you can convince a cellular employee to help you do it.

MARTIN: So it’s a scam aimed at employees of mobile phone operators? Or is it a conspiracy they are involved in?

VELASQUEZ: Well, you know, it could be both. Often we don’t know if it’s an insider threat involving an employee, but sometimes it’s just an employee trying to provide good customer service and being socially manipulated. We therefore tend to view employees more as an instrument of the scam rather than the perpetrators.

MARTIN: So the FBI says these SIM card swapping scammers made over $68 million in 2021, compared to about $4 million in 2020. How did that succeed and how did they get all that money? What did they do?

VELASQUEZ: Well, if we step back and just look at the whole fraud landscape and ecosystem, people should realize that we’ve had unprecedented fraud rates in all of our systems, basically, since the start of the pandemic. There were just a lot of new opportunities. There was a lot more money in our systems and a lot more vulnerabilities were exposed. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that we’ve seen a dramatic increase in this type of fraud, because frankly, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in all types of fraud, especially identity crime, over the last two years, and we’re going to continue to see this kind of new baseline. It has not diminished.

A lot of people think, OK, the pandemic is, I won’t say over, but we’re coming to an end and so fraud has gone down. And while we haven’t hit the peak numbers that we’re seeing in 2020 and 2021, we have a very high new baseline and there will be a very long tail on this fraud. Unfortunately, it is the consumers who will have to deal with this in the end.

MARTIN: How do you handle that? And I think first, since you’ve identified cell phone company employees as sort of – forgive me for using that language – the weak link here. How are mobile carriers doing anything to fix this problem? And then of course, I’m going to ask you, is there anything that consumers can do themselves?

VELASQUEZ: Well, the reality is, of course, mobile carriers are implementing processes, just as many of our institutions are implementing additional anti-fraud processes. They don’t want to waste those dollars and they don’t want unhappy customers either. I mean, it goes without saying. But the particularly insidious part of the SIM swapping threat is that it is – there’s not much an individual can proactively do about it – for this particular problem. It’s about detection and it’s about acting very quickly.

So we really encourage people, if something goes wrong and their phone stops working, sometimes people won’t notice it right away because they’re at home and their phone is connected to their Wi network -Fi, and they don’t realize they don’t have access to that cellular account until they’re connected to Wi-Fi. But we encourage people, if you see any strange activity to take it seriously . And frankly, it’s all over the place. You know, it doesn’t matter if it’s a weird charge on your credit card statement, a notification from a company you do business with, any of these indicators, please follow up immediately as this may indicate a larger problem.

MARTIN: And how do you follow up?

VELASQUEZ: You will need to follow up directly with your mobile carrier. And where that creates a challenge is that often people can’t get back into their account, so sometimes they can’t do it digitally. In fact, they will have to go to a storefront and have this conversation.

MARTIN: It was Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. It is a non-profit organization whose goal is to help consumers reduce their risk of becoming a victim of identity theft. Eva Velasquez, thank you very much for joining us and sharing this expertise with us.

(MUSIC SOUND EXTRACTION)

VELASQUEZ: Oh, I’m happy to be here and to be safe there.

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