How Your Old Phone Number is Putting You at Risk

February 1, 2017

Most people upgrade their cell phones every two years — especially if they’re are on a contract plan. These days, it's a fairly easy thing to do without losing any of the data saved on these devices. But while we tend to cycle through phones as soon as the latest upgrade comes out, there's one thing we are absolutely loathe to part with: our phone number.

Do you remember the last time you changed your phone number — if ever? There's a good chance that it happened because you switched carriers and weren't able to carry the old number with you. Apart from the inconvenience of informing all of your contacts about your new number, you probably didn't think much of the switch. But could it have placed you at risk for identity theft?

Who gets your old number?

Have you ever thought about what happens to an old phone number when the current holder no longer wants it or needs it? It doesn't just vanish. Instead, service providers will reuse the number, handing it off to someone else. This can happen sooner than you might expect.

"Carriers must put residential numbers back into use within 90 days," Mark Wigfield, a Federal Communications Commission spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times. "That's to preserve numbers [and] avoid opening up new area codes, which is often a source of consumer confusion and complaints."

This means that friends and relatives may dial your old number and reach someone else by mistake. But in the grand scheme of things, that's the least of your worries. The big problem is that your phone number is increasingly linked to your finances, medical records and business history. In fact, as a growing number of people abandon home phones in favor of cell phones — only about 40 percent of households still use a landline, as estimated by a National Center for Health Statistics — and this trend has only increased. If you only have one phone number, everything will be tied to it.

Prepare yourself for the possibilities

It's possible that the person who receives your old number won't try to do anything nefarious. But there is still a risk there. Here are some precautionary steps you should take:

  • Let everyone know as soon as possible. It is vital that all of your regular contacts know about your number switch so they don't accidentally send messages to the wrong number. If these messages happen to include sensitive information, it could be compromised.
  • Adjust your two-factor authentication settings. It's getting more common now to secure online accounts with two-factor authentication. In short, this means that every time you type in your password, the account will send a text message to your mobile device containing a separate code, which must be entered to gain access. This is a great way of ensuring that only you can get into your sensitive accounts — but it’s effectiveness is blunted if you forget to update the phone number that receives the code. You could accidentally hand the keys to your digital life to someone else.
  • Be wary of unexpected texts. The Los Angeles Times noted that some home phone lines regularly receive reminder texts from pharmacies and other businesses. You might not even realize it if this happens to you, since your home phone may have no way of reading texts. But if that number is later transferred to a cell phone user, they may start receiving your notifications.

We know that it can be alarming to hear about threats to your privacy and data breaches that could compromise your identity. Sometimes it can seem that you have to change everything about the way you live your life just to be more secure. Identity Guard understands that your unique habits are what make you, you. That's why we offer a variety of products and features so you can choose the personalized approach to helping you protect your identity. Check out how we can help you protect what's yours.




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