Should you be concerned about cell phone hacking?

Published: September 26, 2011

As cell phones become more computer-like, they're bound to face more computer-like issues. The greater of those being security, a slew of mobile security firms have spawned. And those who carry great weight in the PC world, like Norton, McAfee and AVG, have crossed over to help intercept the onslaught and recent growing threat in the mobile realm.

My grandfather always used to say, "If you don't talk about it, it will go away." That's exactly what I was trying to do with the recent cell phone hacking fiasco. But unfortunately, it seems as if it's not going anywhere. It's only getting worse.

In the case that you haven't kept up with the news, several celebrities, criminal case victims and suspects, and government officials both in the US and overseas have fallen victim to cell phone hacking. Most of these instances of "hacking" are more appropriately dubbed "voicemail breaches." Essentially, a person in the limelight is targeted by a reporter for a media firm for a potentially juicy story. In such cases, the reporter will use several means of "brute force" (guessing at the voicemail password until a combination actually works) hacking to obtain passwords and access to a victim's phone.

PBS detailed several ways that these shady reporters can gain access to a victim's voicemail without being detected. Using one method, named "double screwing," two reporters will call the same number at the same time. One phone will receive a busy tone, the other will be sent directly to voicemail. If remote voicemail is enabled, they can then gain access to the password prompt, where they will proceed to guess common number combinations like 1111, 1234 or a birth date.

Another method is called "spoofing," which was a service initially created – to my knowledge at least – for entertainment purposes. Spoofing allows the caller to disguise their CID number. Therefore, they can call from an external number, disguised as the recipient's number, thus passing them straight through to the voicemail. (At least that's my understanding of it.) If nothing else, the number can be disguised as some unnatural phone number like 555-555-5555, so that if the recipient were to pick up instead of letting the call go to voicemail, they would have a hard time tracing the origin of the call.

So should you and I be wary? Maybe not of this particular type of cell phone hacking. Not yet, at least. I'm sure journos and reporters aren't chasing just anyone around trying to catch wind of some dirty laundry or a juicy story. But smartphones and the ways in which we use them are evolving. We are likely becoming a little too comfortable with them in their current state and storing more and more private information on them – bank account information, passwords and many more personal things we probably wouldn't like getting out. With such vital information hidden behind a thin wall of security, mobile pickpockets are on the prowl, looking for any and every way to breach said security.

I know I've covered mobile security several times now, but it's an issue that always deserves a little more attention. It never hurts to be prepared and to follow a simple list of guidelines that will help avoid future problems. Don't slip into a state of paranoia, just beware and err on the side of too cautious. To help avert fraud and other mobile security breaches, follow these simple tips:

  • Only download apps from trusted sources, such as reputable app stores and download sites.
  • After clicking on a web link, pay close attention to the address to make sure it matches the website it claimed to be.
  • Download a mobile security tool that scans every app you download for malware and spyware, and can help you locate a lost or stolen device.
  • Be alert for unusual behavior on a phone. These behaviors may include unusual text messages, strange charges to the phone bill, and suddenly decreased battery life.
  • Do not store any personal information that you would not want someone else getting their hands on.
  • Create strong passwords that are not easily cracked. Do not store them on the phone, and change them frequently.
  • Password protect your phone. In the event that it is lost, someone cannot simply pick it up and begin using it or steal private information.

Like I said, security threats in the mobile world are on the rise. While voicemail hacking only threatens a small percentage of cell phone users, hacking and other methods of stealing data from your phone could become an issue in the not too distant future. If you prepare and stay up to date on mobile security, the chances of you running into a problem down the road are much more slim.

Stay safe out there, folks.

Image via Seattle P-I

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