By Catherine Martinez
At the beginning of this year, I was a victim of SIM port hacking, a sophisticated form of identity theft. In SIM port hacking, a thief convinces your cell service provider to have your number reassigned to another phone so that all your texts and calls are redirected to that person. This gives the hacker the power to break into crucial personal accounts using two-factor authentication text messages. The goal is to get access to your bank accounts, your email, and even your Apple ID.
It happened to me in a matter of hours. I was sitting in church with my husband and our new baby when I noticed I had no cell service. I didn’t think much about it—I was in a big building, and I shouldn’t have been looking at my phone in church anyway—so I put it away.
When I got home and connected to the Wi-Fi, I had at least two dozen emails thanking me for subscribing to various newsletters—I knew something wasn’t right.
I contacted my service provider and learned my number was stolen from a sales kiosk in another state. It was an inside job, the only way the hacker could have accessed my account without the PIN I had set up for security.
The thief was also able to break into my Apple ID using two-factor authentication and change the email address associated with the account. This means that everything on my phone was unrecoverable, and the thief had access to my photos and knew my primary bank, credit cards, and even health insurance because of the apps I had backed up to iCloud. Fortunately, I recovered my number before the hacker took over my bank account and my credit cards seemed uncompromised. Naïvely, I assumed it was all over.
But this summer, my credit score dropped nearly 300 points on my monthly credit card statement. With my Apple ID, the thief obtained an Apple Card in my name and maxed out the credit limit. Because I’ve never made a late payment, it took several months for my score to plummet.
I’m still picking up the pieces and I don’t want it to happen to you. Here are six of the lessons I’ve learned in the process.
1. Take action immediately.
My hackers didn’t care that I was a new mom not getting any sleep—they still went after my personal information. I was tired and overwhelmed, and I wanted to focus on my baby, but by the time I realized what had happened, I needed to act quickly.
2. Check your credit reports regularly from all three credit bureaus.
This was my first mistake. I watch my credit score regularly through my monthly credit card statement, but I didn’t know that this score came from only one of these bureaus. If I’d checked my credit report instead of depending on the statement, I would have noticed an inquiry on my account sooner. Make it a priority to check your credit report once a year—it’s free!
3. Sign up for identity theft protection.
As soon as I had my phone number stolen, I should have signed up for an identity theft protection service. In fact, I should have signed up before my identity was compromised.
4. Two-factor authentication isn’t perfect.
Two-factor authentication does protect your accounts, but not perfectly. In my case, it almost caused me to lose everything. Protect yourself with apps like Google Authenticator that provide an extra layer of security tied to your physical phone, not your phone number.
5. As soon as you think you’ve become a victim of identity theft, file a report with the FTC.
I filed an identity theft report with the FTC, and they gave me a checklist of the things I needed to do to put my life back in order. These included instructions for contacting all three credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax, and Transunion and placing a fraud alert associated with my identity.
6. It’s possible to bounce back.
Before my SIM port hacking saga, I had good credit that took years to build. After I followed the FTC’s plan and spoke to many helpful customer service representatives, my credit recovered, and the credit bureaus removed all fraudulent activities from my reports.
If you are a victim of identity theft, remember there are still more good guys than bad guys in this world who want to help. You will recover your life and credit score!
Catherine Martinez is a contributing writer for Smart Women Smart Money Magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.