Phone Number Porting Scams: How to Keep the Phone Number in the Family

Lyndon Seitz
Dolores Bernal
December 6, 2023

In our modern world of convenience, where everything is just a swipe or tap away, it’s easy to assume that our phone numbers are safe and secure. However, the truth is far more unsettling. In the not-so-distant past, stealing a phone number was the stuff of imagination – a seemingly pointless and absurd concept. 

Things have changed.

We’ll go into this more later, but for a moment, think of all the accounts and information your phone number is linked to. You probably can’t think of it off the top of your head (I know I can’t). 

Now think of all the accounts with your phone as a login or two-factor identification information.

Making your phone and phone number part of an account’s security was a smart idea, with some downsides. Making your number part of your security makes it a target to scammers and identity thieves. And phone number porting scams are one of the biggest scams they use to get it.

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What is a Phone Number Porting Scam?

Also referred to as port-out fraud or a port-out scam, a phone number porting scam is when a scammer attempts to impersonate you to trick a phone provider into taking your number from another provider. This is under the pretense that you’re switching providers and want to keep your number.

Most major providers allow for taking your phone number with you when you switch to a new service. A scammer will use this, pretend they’re you, take your number, and add it to their SIM card.

They need enough information to impersonate you online or with a telephone company customer service agent, but this is possible. In other cases, the scammers will simply bribe an employee if they think it’s worth it.

Once they control your phone number, they can take over many of your accounts and wreak havoc.

About SIM Swapping Scams

Heavily related to phone number porting scams are SIM swapping scams.

A SIM swapping scam is when a scammer, usually after getting enough personal information to impersonate a target in the eyes of a phone company, will manipulate systems to swap your number to another device, often wirelessly. 

It sounds very close to port-out fraud, and it is. It does, however, focus on the SIM card instead of the account, though, and will often happen within the same provider.

SIM swapping can occur in person, but this is rare unless a phone has been physically stolen.

The good news is that SIM cards will have protection, which means they cannot be remotely affected or targeted, meaning physical theft is necessary. However, you will need to apply protections to your account and ensure no issues regarding your security setup. More on this later.

Unfortunately, Your Phone Number Is Probably Easy to Find

To perform this scam, a scammer needs to know your phone number to request it be transferred to their SIM card. No phone number means no luck for the scammer.

But do a quick search of yourself right now and see how long it takes to find your phone number, either your business line or personal, if applicable.

And how easy would it be to associate the number with your name? How about with other information?

There are many legitimate reasons to put your phone number (or one of them) online. It could be a business line, or you might not have other options. It might be in a secluded corner of the internet. Just know that having it available makes you more of a target, and you must prepare accordingly.

How Do Scammers Pull It Off?

Black Iphone 7 on Brown Table

Photo by Tyler Lastovich

This is a more involved scam than most others you’d find online. It requires a fair deal of information, knowledge of your phone number in the first place, and a few guesses as to other information.

Your search for yourself in the last section will tell you a lot about how easy you are to find and learn about online. You might be a private person or have the fortune (in this situation) of having a common name), but you also might be the victim of previous breaches, putting your information online or on the dark web.

Using this information, a scammer can impersonate you on the phone (the service agent won’t know what you sound like) to convince them to change a number to a new account, provide more personal details, and more. Scammers get a lot of practice at this, and the service agents won’t catch everything.

Unfortunately, all the information a scammer needs could be available online without you knowing. You might have even been the person to put it up.

Is Anyone Doing Anything About It?

This can feel like a problem you’re somewhat powerless to solve (not true, by the way). It involves systems you don’t have control over and is not something you can easily watch out for until the scam is underway.

Some government groups, such as the FCC, have noticed this problem and are working on potential solutions. However, the government often works slowly, and this is a relatively new problem.

Additionally, there are phone companies themselves that want to solve the issue. Phone number porting scams can be a major thorn in their sides, given the amount of money they might lose on logistics and time fixing them when they pop up, and it’s not like they get a cut from the scammers.

Nonetheless, the scams continue, and it looks to be some time (if ever) when larger organizations solve the problem.

Prevention Tips

You can’t necessarily trust phone companies or the government to be proactive about this in time, so it’s up to you. How can you prevent these attacks?

  • Contact your phone service provider or look up what protections against these scams they offer. They may vary by provider.
    • Common services include freezing your number with the provider, so you’d need to enter a store or provide an extra PIN to move a phone number. 
  • Use strong passwords, and don’t use the same password twice. You can use a password manager such as Bitwarden to help you out. Often, a phone number and access aren’t enough to control your account. A secondary account or information would be needed.
    • If security questions apply to your account(s), use the best ones. Don’t pick questions that have answers found with some snooping online.
  • In addition to considering matters from the security of your phone and phone account, consider your other accounts and information. If you heavily protect your email account and other accounts and information, you can protect yourself against the worst damage and recover more easily.
    • Check to see what personal information is available about you online and how much you can remove.
  • Use services that can help protect your accounts and prevent identity theft. You cannot protect your accounts, devices, and information online alone.
    • Aura is a great option for protecting from identity theft. 
    • ExpressVPN is a good option for a VPN to keep your online work private.
    • Norton and McAfee are good options for antivirus software.  

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What Can Scammers Do with Your Phone Number

A lot and most of it leads to even worse things.

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Photo by Limon Das

With access to your phone number, scammers can often act as you, gaining access to many of your accounts (especially if they have additional information).

This can mean:

  • Acting as you and applying for credit in your name.
  • Access to your accounts using your phone is the second factor in two-factor authentication. A scammer would need some knowledge of your email account, but again, this would not be hard to come by online.
  • Using the number and access to it to impersonate you to companies, potentially getting more information on you.
    • This information would then be used in more scams.
    • In doing so, the scammer might damage your relationships with a company or mess up your arrangements and services.
  • Impersonate you to family and friends, potentially getting their money or personal information. This is much more likely if the scammer somehow gets ahold of your contacts list.
    • Alternatively, if the scammer is especially lazy, they could just spam everyone (yes, even that person you went on one date with three years ago) with phishing links and the like until everyone blocks you.

The Consequences of a Phone Number Porting Scam

What happens if you become a victim? What happens if you become a victim and, for some reason, do nothing about it?

  • Identity theft is the first concern to have. With access to your accounts granted by having your phone number, a scammer can easily access most or all the information they need. This, in turn, will inevitably lead to identity theft and its consequences.
  • Financial losses, especially if your accounts are accessed directly. While some fraud can be reversed, especially regarding credit, your bank accounts can be harder to fix.
  • While all this is happening, you probably won’t be able to use your phone for calling or texting. This can be extremely limiting, and you can miss important texts and calls while sorting out the mess.

And there will be other potential consequences depending on the scammer, your personal situation, and other factors.

Signs You Are a Victim of Phone Number Porting

  • The most immediate sign is that you can only make emergency calls on your phone. That means your number isn’t properly in service, whether due to a scam or a malfunction somewhere along the line.
  • If you are getting repeated two-factor authentication attempts on things such as your email, or security notices about login attempts, that’s a bad sign when combined with other considerations.
  • You notice strange activity on your accounts, whether unrequested changes, attempts for access, or more activity than usual.
  • If you have accounts and services monitoring identity theft, you get alerts that something is wrong.
    • Be sure not to ignore these as many people do. Reviewing a report doesn’t take long and could save you a great deal.

In truth, you’ll likely notice something is wrong quickly when this type of scam happens to you. People check their phones dozens of times daily, and being unable to call or text anyone generally gets someone’s attention.

What to Do If You’ve Been Targeted or Are a Victim

Remember to Act Quickly

With most scams and fraud, time is of the essence. With phone number porting, you are racing against the clock. The more time you let go by, the more damage is done, and the greater the likelihood you can’t fix it all.

Now is not the time to panic – you can do that later. Now is the time to protect your accounts as quickly as possible.

Contact Relevant Companies and Institutions

The scammer isn’t going to notify companies that your identity was stolen for you (not on purpose, anyhow). You need to start with that to perform damage control, likely including the following:

  • First and foremost, your phone company to let them know what is happening. Have ways to identify yourself (billing statements help) if your accounts were stolen. This will not be the first time the service provider has dealt with this scam, and protocols will be in place.
    • In a best-case scenario, they will be able to reverse the process quickly or at least freeze it, preventing more damage from being done.
  • A credit freeze and contacting your creditors and bank accounts may be in order, especially when there is a high chance of compromised accounts. This is likely because the scammer has other information on you.
    • At the same time, if it isn’t done automatically, you will want to place a fraud watch or alert on those accounts.
    • This is also a good time to check your credit report to see if there are any concerning charges.
  • Depending on the extent of the damage and what you can track, you will want to file a police report about the incident.
  • If a scam or other forms of fraud are involved (such as phishing), you will want to send a report to the FTC to help prevent it from happening to others.
  • You will want to contact friends and loved ones who a scammer might contact, impersonating you. Warning them will help prevent other people from getting scammed.

Be Proactive Against Identity Theft

You can bet your identity is next if your phone number was stolen. You must prepare against identity theft for the foreseeable future (it doesn’t always happen immediately). You can do so by:

  • Getting a service such as Aura to do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. They can provide identity theft insurance, monitor all your important accounts for suspicious behavior, provide you with alerts if someone tries to use your credit or identity, and more.
  • Being careful about what information you post and where.
  • Practice good cybersecurity habits. This means installing cybersecurity software, using good passwords and two-factor authentication, and avoiding shady links and downloads.
  • Sign up for services such as bank alerts. On top of an identity protection service, these will nearly ensure you catch wind of suspicious activity.
  • Keep aware of any data breaches that might affect you. They happen often and are not your fault but they can make you vulnerable.

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Get Your Number Back

You worked very hard to get your phone number set up everywhere, and you should work to get it back. 

Depending on your provider, the exact process regarding getting your number back might differ slightly. The best advice I can offer is to inquire about the process when contacting your phone company and follow up as soon as possible.

Secure All of Your Accounts

If you use two-factor authentication on any of your accounts and your stolen phone number is the point of verification, change that as soon as possible. You should change that to a trusted email or another phone number you have (assuming you think they are safe).

You will also want to change your passwords on your accounts for good measure. 

Security questions are also important to check. Are any of them too easy? Your mother’s maiden name is at once cliched and not as secure as you think it is.

Check the advice given for each account on maximizing security. As features vary, those pages will have the best specific advice.

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Photo by ready made

Conclusion – Don’t Let Scammers Steal Your Phone Number

You know better than I the importance of your phone number, and you cannot go without it for long.

Take action today to prevent phone number porting scams from stealing your phone number, identity, and more. Contact your phone company about the issue, set up protections, invest in a service such as Aura to protect your identity, and stay vigilant.

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It will take some work and time, but it will be worth it in the long run. These measures not only protect you from phone number porting scams but other threats online as well. Start protecting yourself today and work a little on it each day until you are prepared.

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