Con Watch: Is Your SIM Card Safe?

Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

What Is a SIM Card?

A Subscriber Identity Module, more commonly known as a SIM card, is an integrated circuit that stores information used to authenticate you on your cell phone. The SIM card is able to be transferred between different devices, and often is, such as when you get a new phone but keep the same cell phone number.

What Is the Danger?

If identity thieves take over your SIM card, they can control your email and any other accounts you access through your cell phone, such as Amazon, eBay, PayPal and Netflix. Even more worrisome, criminals can also intercept security codes sent by text message as part of dual factor authentication, which is often used to verify your identity for more secure transactions, such as online banking. The thief now has the opportunity to empty your bank accounts and cause financial havoc. They can easily reset your password on any online accounts that you have that are tied to your cell phone number. If that weren’t bad enough, they now also have access to any personal information, such calls or texts, that could potentially be used to blackmail you.

How Do They Get Your SIM Card Information?

A criminal calls your phone carrier claiming to be you and telling them your phone has been lost or damaged. Then they ask the carrier to transfer or swap your SIM card to a new phone controlled by the criminal. This is known as SIM card swapping.In another type of scam known as porting, the thief calls your carrier, saying they want to transfer the phone number to a new company.

In order for the scam to work, the identity thief needs to have personal information about you so that when they call your carrier, they can impersonate you effectively. They are quite adept at contacting victims by email or telephone and getting them to supply Social Security numbers by posing as a legitimate company or agency. Even if one is cautious about giving out personal information, it can often be bought on the Dark Web thanks to all of the recent corporate data breaches, including those at Marriott, Equifax, and Facebook.

Recently, Sydney, Australia police charged a man with involvement in a conspiracy where criminals took over the mobile phone accounts of 70 people and gained access to their bank accounts, using them to purchase more than $100,000 in goods. It was estimated that this type of crime cost Australians at least $10 million in the last year.

In February, 20-year-old college student Joel Ortiz became the first American to be convicted of crimes related to SIM swapping. Ortiz was sentenced to ten years in prison for hacking into the online Bitcoin wallets of his victims, stealing more than $5 million in Bitcoin.

How Do You Protect Yourself?

The best thing you can do to protect your SIM card from porting or swapping is to set up a PIN or password for access to your mobile service provider account. This will help prevent a criminal from calling your carrier posing as you.

AT&T will allow you to set up a passcode for your account that is different from the password that you use to log into your account online. Without this passcode, AT&T will not swap your SIM card.

Verizon enables customers to set up a PIN or password to be used for purposes of authentication when they contact a call center.

T-Mobile will allow you to set up a passcode that is different from the one you use to access your account online. This code will not only protect you from criminals attempting to call T-Mobile and swap your SIM card, but will also prevent someone with a fake ID from making changes to your account at a T-Mobile store.

Sprint customers can establish a PIN that must be provided when doing a SIM swap.

Remember to never provide personal information in response to an email, phone call or text. You can never be sure who is really contacting you. If you think the communication might be legitimate, contact the real company or agency directly using a phone number or address that you know is accurate in order to confirm whether or not the original contact was legitimate.

These simple steps can help protect you from becoming a victim of SIM swapping.

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5 Laws You May Be Breaking Everyday

Most Americans would consider themselves honest, law abiding citizens. But is that true? Yes, you try your hardest to follow the laws, as best you know them, but just how many laws are there? In 1982 the Department of Justice tried to count all of the criminal offenses on the books and gave up after finding 3,000.

With an incalculable amount of laws, how do you know you aren’t breaking any? Here are five laws that you may be breaking every day.

1. Violating Federal Copyright Law

To you, it may be something as harmless as copying a song from your friend’s CD to your computer, or downloading the latest blockbuster movie about a guy who can talk to fish from a not-so-official website, but to the federal government, violating copyright law is a very serious offense.

The number of items you copy and their value does have an effect on what kind of punishment you can expect. According to the Department of Justice, “The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of at least 10 copies or phonorecords, or 1 or more copyrighted works, with a retail value of more than $2,500 can be imprisoned for up to 5 years and fined up to $250,000, or both.”

But don’t think that you can get away with making an illegal copy of a CD or movie for yourself and just a few friends. The copyright holder can still file a civil suit against you, which could lead to big penalties in damages, lawyers’ fees, and court costs. In 2006, Minnesota woman Jammie Thomas-Rasset was sued by Capitol Records for uploading 24 copyrighted songs to the file-sharing site Kazaa. In 2013 she was ordered to pay $222,000 to the RIAA. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, who declined to hear the case.

2. Gambling in Your Home

A bearded man showing his cards at a poker table. Gambling like this in your own home is illegal in many state governments.

Many people across America invite friends and family into their homes each week for a game night. And while some households play Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride, many groups gather to play games that are considered to be illegal by many state governments.

If you host or participate in a game of chance that involves money, you could be in big trouble. Even if your state allows gambling (Nevada, New Jersey) that gambling is only allowed in government-sanctioned places, like casinos and riverboats. So inviting your friends to buy into your kitchen table $5 poker game is not allowed, and depending on the state you live in, law enforcement can arrest you.

In 2004 Guy Garner from Jackson, Tennessee was playing poker with some friends in a cabin near a state park when their game was raided by police. The pot for the game was a grand total of $20. A county judge found Garner and his friends guilty of breaking Tennessee’s gambling laws and they were ordered to pay a fine of $50.

3. Using Your Cell Phone While Driving

Today, it’s common knowledge that texting or talking on your cell phone without using a hands-free device can be pretty dangerous. Nevertheless, many of us can’t resist sending that “On my way” text or checking for the latest article from The Saturday Evening Post on Facebook. What you may not know is that even looking at your phone while driving can bring some heavy fines.

California has some of the strictest cell phone laws in the country. They ban any use of a handheld device while driving. Fines for violating these laws range from $20 to $50, but they can also come with hundreds of dollars in court and administrative costs.

Illinois recently passed a law that punishes those who text while driving. Under the new law, texting while driving will earn you a fine as well as a moving violation that could lead to a suspended license.

Currently, 15 states completely ban handheld devices while driving, while 32 additional states make it illegal to text and drive. The National Conference of State Legislatures offers a chart of the laws in each state.

4. Smoking Weed

A bag of marijuana cigarrettes rests on a pile of weed. Smoking weed is against the law in many U.S. states, as well as a federal offense.

In many states across the country buying and smoking marijuana is considered legal; at least it’s considered legal by those specific state governments. States like Michigan, Colorado, and California have recently passed laws that allow the recreational use of pot, but many states across America have yet to take this step.

Even still, buying, selling, and smoking weed is still illegal on a federal level. How can you be punished by the federal government by doing something your state government considers legal?

A clause in the U.S. Constitution known as the supremacy clause essentially renders null and void a state constitutional or statutory provision or law that is inconsistent with a treaty or law that is executed by the Federal Government. In short, even if your state says its okay for you to buy and smoke weed, as long as the federal government says it’s illegal, you can still be arrested and punished for it.

Most weed smoking citizens in these states have nothing to fear. The majority of federal enforcement ends up going after the distributors and marijuana dispensaries.

5. Jaywalking

If you dart across the street without being at a designated crosswalk, you just committed a crime. Almost every major city in the United States has a law on the books that prohibits jaywalking.

Many cities disagree on what exactly it means to jaywalk, and some cities are stricter than others when it comes to enforcing these laws. Fines and penalties vary, but if your jaywalking results in an accident, or worse, you could be in a world of legal trouble.

In 2011 Raquel Nelson was convicted of reckless conduct, improperly crossing a roadway, and second-degree murder. Nelson was jaywalking across the street with her three children when an impaired driver struck and killed her 4-year-old son. The driver, who was had been drinking and taking pain killers, was sentenced to five years in prison. Two years later Nelson was cleared of the homicide charge and pleaded guilty to jaywalking.

Cartoons: Cell Phones

Sure, your cell phone has become indispensable, but have you noticed how annoying other people are with them?

from May/June 2009

from May/June 2009

“You lived the first 70 years of your life without a cell phone; why is forgetting it at home now a cause for panic?” from March/April 2004

"You lived the first 70 years of your life without a cell phone;
why is forgetting it at home now a cause for panic?"
from March/April 2004

 “Yeah, I'm standing here alone yelling a bunch of nonsense but if I had a cell phone, you'd think it was acceptable!” from January/February 2009

"Yeah, I'm standing here alone yelling a bunch of nonsense
but if I had a cell phone, you'd think it was acceptable!"
from January/February 2009

 “Every time I try to make a call, I take a picture of my thumb.” from March/April 2008

"Every time I try to make a call,
I take a picture of my thumb."
from March/April 2008

 “It's nap time, first graders. So please turn off your pages, beepers and cell phones.” from July/August 2007

"It's nap time, first graders.
So please turn off your pages, beepers and cell phones."
from July/August 2007
 “Didn't you like it better when we talked directly?” from January/February 2005

"Didn't you like it better when we talked directly?"
from January/February 2005

 “Could you suggest some place to go where my husband's cell phone won't work?” from January/February 2005

"Could you suggest some place to go
where my husband's cell phone won't work?"
from January/February 2005