Beware of Phishing Cell Phone Calls: Don’t Share Personal Info with Strangers

Here’s an important cautionary tale for anyone with a cell phone: Beware of phishing calls. Don’t share personal information with strangers over the phone, if you can’t verify their identity and authority with absolute certainty.

Like many others, I’ve noticed a significant uptick in the past few months of spam phone calls to my cell phone. I’m not sure how folks are getting my cell phone number, but I suspect as cell phone numbers have become a de-facto identifier in recent years for data collection agencies and marketers, there are more opportunities than ever for unscrupulous folks to obtain our cell phone numbers through “officially legitimate” means. Of course hacks are on the rise too, so there are tons of data files floating around now with our “private” cell phone numbers. This is unfortunate, since cell phone numbers were never designed or intended to become identity markers, and this places us all at risk for bad things, as this excellent August 2018 article in Wired magazine highlighted.

Cell phone spam calls have become such a problem that I now rarely answer a cell phone call if it’s from someone not in my address book. For some reason this afternoon, however, I decided to answer a phone call from an unknown caller.

The woman on the line initially tried to read a script that she was calling on a recorded line, like an official credit collection agency, but stumbled around initial greetings and never read it fully. She said she was calling for payment for a local university, and needed information from me to verify my identity. She first asked for my address, and when I would not provide it asked for the last four digits of my social security number.

I asked her to explain what this charge was for, and all she could say was it was a “miscellaneous charge” from a local university. She did name the university, and since it’s in our local area we do have some connection to it, so it was slightly plausible we had an open bill with them. However, we haven’t received anything in snail mail from the university, and haven’t seen any emails. One of our daughters took a concurrent class from this university last Spring, so I asked her to check her online Bursar’s account tonight, and we don’t owe a balance. So this was, in my estimation, a confirmed instance of cell phone call phishing.

When I asked the caller today what university office I could call to verify this bill or debt, she insisted she could not provide me with any additional information until I verified my identity. I stated several times that I was not going to provide any personal information to a stranger who had made an unsolicited phone call to me. This is the most important message I’d like to share in this post. We need to not only encourage our children and students who have cell phones, but also our aging parents and friends of ANY age to be VERY wary about giving out any information over the phone to strangers.

This reminds me of one of the basic digital citizenship lessons we’ve created for our elementary students at school, which uses a short video from NetSafe about “Personal Information.” The video depicts a face-to-face stranger asking for personal information, but in my situation today, it was a stranger calling on the phone who ALMOST sounded like a legitimate debt collector, making an illegitimate request for personal information which I REFUSED. This response was both appropriate and very important for my own safety and potentially the financial safety of our family.

Online scams are on the rise and, unfortunately, are only projected to multiply in the months and years ahead as more criminals ramp up their Internet-based activities.

Conversations about “not talking to strangers” are important today not just for kids, but also for adults. “Verifying information” about you can be used to unlock a bank account, port a cell phone number, or take control of an online account like an email address or AppleID.

Stay safe and stay savvy, folks.

For more resources on these topics, check out my weekly podcast with Jason Neiffer, “The EdTech Situation Room,” and also visit our school’s Digital Citizenship resource website: DigCit.us. There are good resources there for parents and teachers, and we’ll be continuing to add to those resources in the days ahead.

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