Someone stole your cell number? Acting fast is critical, this industry expert says

A veteran telecommunications consultant is sharing advice with consumers after nearly falling victim to a growing type of cellphone fraud.

Fraudsters increasingly using the tactic to hack into bank accounts, police say

Neeraj Kumar, a telecommunications consultant with 20 years experience, says wireless companies should set up dedicated fraud hotlines to assist customers. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

A veteran telecommunications consultant is sharing advice to consumers after nearly falling victim to a growing type of cellphone fraud.

The phenomenon is known as number porting or SIM swap fraud. It occurs when a fraudster steals a victim's number and has it transferred to a new service provider — a process also known as porting. 

"A lot of damage could be done; it's probably much more severe than just losing your credit card," said Neeraj Kumar, who had his number fraudulently ported earlier this month.

In an age when phone numbers are widely used to access a variety of websites and accounts through the two-step verification process, losing access to a phone number can have devastating privacy implications.

The Ontario Provincial Police say fraudsters have increasingly been using the tactic to gain access to bank accounts. 

Another victim recently came forward to CBC News when someone attempted to blackmail him after stealing and porting his phone number. The fraudster used the number to access intimate photos and videos on the victim's cloud storage account.

But despite those growing concerns, Kumar said he was "shocked" after calling his service provider to alert them about the unauthorized port.

"I explained the situation to them. They said they don't have any clue," he said.

Kumar said the service agent eventually confirmed that his number had been ported, but that it could take up to 48 hours before it was returned or suspended.

"A lot of damage could be done between now and those 48 hours," he told CBC Toronto.

Kumar has told CBC Toronto specifics about his case, but we have agreed not to name his provider because it may affect Kumar's future work in the industry.

What to do if your number is ported

After several hours on the phone, Kumar was able to find out where the number had been ported. He then hung up, called that company, explained the situation and had the number suspended before any damage was done.

It was a sequence of events that Kumar says average customers would not have known to follow.

He says anyone who has their number fraudulently ported should follow these steps:

  • Immediately call your service provider.
  • Find out which company the phone number was ported to.
  • Call that company, and have the number suspended.

While making those calls, Kumar also recommends that victims suspend or alter their access to as many accounts as possible, including email, social media and financial services.

Many accounts now send texts as part of two-step verification. Losing access to your phone number can put that process at risk. (Shutterstock)

Most ports legitimate, industry says

The regulations allowing number porting were established by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in 2005, and fully rolled out in 2007.

The rules were introduced to allow customers to switch carriers while keeping their number. 

The CRTC requires that the company taking over the number must have proof that the customer authorized the transfer, though some fraudsters are now able to bypass those safeguards.

"Unfortunately there are criminals who seek to try and exploit these systems. This is not unique to Canada, and not unique to the wireless industry," said a spokesperson for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), a wireless industry group.

The CWTA — which includes Rogers, Bell and Telus, and others — says security procedures are set by each company, and that the measures are largely successful.

According to the CWTA, "millions" of numbers are ported every year, the vast majority of which are legitimate.

"Our members continually monitor for fraudulent activity and adjust their security measures and verification procedures in response to observed unauthorized activity," the association also said.

Kumar said his experience shows that major improvements are needed. He said companies could start by establishing dedicated fraud hotlines, given the increasing amount of personal information that can be accessed through a phone number.

"I mean if you look at it like the damage that could be done, they are also sort of a party which let that happen."