Today I would like to discuss something strange that happened to me yesterday. When I moved to Colorado a few months ago, my husband and I decided to merge our cell phone bills under a single family plan. This meant I would need to change my phone number to a new one. At first, my thought was I would potentially lose contact with people if I changed my number. This quickly changed into a feeling of excitement. I could start fresh – new slate – and give my number to those whom I cared to stay in contact with. So I did it, I changed my number.
I chose a number that was easy to remember. Some of the options I was given had weird number combos and just didn’t look very pretty to me, if that makes any sense at all. Once I decided upon a number, I quickly texted it to everyone in my social circle. Most friends saved the number (as I had asked) while some chose to ignore it.
Fast forward to a few months down the line.
**I still receive emails and facebook messages from people who were notified of my phone number change, asking why I hadn’t returned their texts/voicemails — it’s maddening, but that is not what this post is about.
The other morning, I received a text message from a number not in my contact list. The text message read, ‘Trying to determine who is blowing [up] my daughters phone at all hours of night. I will block the number if you don’t confirm who you are.‘
I sat puzzled for a while after reading this. For a split second, I thought perhaps I had pocket-dialed someone in my sleep or that I had inadvertently unlocked my phone while it was in my bag. I checked the call and message log — no record of the number. Officially perplexed, I thought about all of the hypothetical ways my phone number could’ve ‘blown up’ some teenagers cell phone.
We have a saying in San Francisco, often used amidst my social circle, known as ‘GTS‘ (Google That Shit). GTS is the act of googling something to determine accuracy or to enlighten yourself with knowledge on a subject you were previously unsure about. So I GTS’d the following: ‘can you text and have it display as another number?’.
The results were disturbing and frightening.
Turns out you can. In fact, there a number of ways you can anonymously text or leave a voicemail for someone. It’s called ‘phishing’ or even ‘spoofing’. Gone were the days of simply dialing *67 before any number to block your caller ID from showing up – now you can manipulate the number entirely so that it shows up as a completely different one (in my case, it was my own cell number instead of the actual harasser). This site was helpful in identifying how people can text anonymously or ‘mask’ their actual number with a different one – CHECK IT OUT HERE.
I was feeling pretty violated at this point and called tech support on our carrier’s customer service line. Our carrier, AT&T, wasn’t very helpful, as I am sure you can imagine. In fact, tech support transferred me to an un-named department that dealt specifically with fraud cases. The operator at this department jokingly admitted that I was the second case of phishing he had come across today, which didn’t bring any relief. I was told that the only option I had was to change my number – the problem with this option was twofold: I was using my new cell number for personal and work reasons and changing it would cause me lots of grief, also, my new number was not guaranteed protection from ‘spoofers’ so I still ran the risk of becoming a victim. So after some careful thought, I decided not to change my number. The operator agreed that my decision was best, especially since [as he said], ‘You’re only dealing with a teenager here. The woman before you had someone from Afghanistan using her number to call people and persuade them to buy something over the phone.’ Guess my problem seemed pretty small compared to that.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have any real resolution to my problem. I did, however, gain some pretty insightful information on what my personal information can be used for. After getting over my disbelief that these things happen (and often) I called the poor mother who was trying to determine who was harassing her daughter. We spoke and confirmed that it was in fact not me, but someone using my number to mask their own. I realized that even if we solved one mystery that day, we discovered several new ones for the both of us. Technology is growing everyday and often I am blown away by what the next generation is able to pick up. I love technology and use it everyday to connect and exchange bits of information at lightning speed — but it is becoming painfully clear to me that sometimes technology can leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed. So be a little bit more vigilant and take a second or third look at your phone bill activity — you never know if someone is using your number as a false front to harass someone. Don’t be a victim!