Communications and Media

I Spy: Who's Hacking & Tapping Your Phone?

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Everyone's busy and on the go these days, and there's an ever-present sense of urgency to stay connected or in touch with family, friends and even your boss, employees and co-workers. Telephones - especially cell or mobile phones - are how the vast majority of us stay in the loop.

Now, think about how much you use your phone and what you say when using it. There's a wealth of information that may be of interest to a lot of people. And they just might be able to get it.

Journalists' Phone Hacking Scandal

In July 2011, the news world was rocked by reports that journalists for a British newspaper, the News of the World, hacked into the voicemail accounts of thousands of people. The victims range from a murdered school girl to sports celebrities to members of the Royal Family. Why? To get news scoops, apparently.

Not long after the scandal broke, News Corporation (News Corp.), the owner of "News of the World," stopped publication of the UK newspaper.

Problem in the US?

While the investigation continued in Britain, the FBI started an investigation into claims that News Corp. employees - or people hired by journalists, like private investigators - hacked into phone conversations and voicemails of 9/11 survivors, victims and their families.

Several members of the US Congress have called for a federal investigation of News Corp. as well.

Are You At Risk?

You're not a movie star, sports hero, politician or the victim of a high profile crime or national disaster, so you don't have anything to worry about, right? Who could possibly want to hack into your voicemail messages or listen to your telephone conversations?

You may be surprised. Think about what you say over the phone or store in voicemails:

  • Identity thieves and other criminals may get your credit card, bank account and social security numbers
  • An ex-spouse, or soon-to-be ex, may be looking for information to use as leverage against you in a divorce or child custody battle
  • Co-workers or business competitors may get your trade secrets or steal your idea for a new product or service

Once you think about it, you'll realize the list of who would want access to your phone and why is endless.

How Hacks & Taps Work

Without getting too technical, knowing some basics about hacks and taps can help you prevent and stop it from happening to you.

Hacking into Phones

This is primarily a problem for mobile or cell phones. Like email hacking, someone gets into information stored on your cell phone, like voicemail, without your permission. This can be done by:

  • Accessing your account by using your password you may have shared with the hacker
  • Pretexting or spoofing, where the hacker calls your wireless provider, pretends to be you and changes your password or accesses your voicemail and other account features
  • Installing software or spyware, malware or a virus on your phone

Tapping Phones: Listening In

For those of you who still have traditional phones with telephone wires - called landlines - a phone tap is still the same thing you remember from TV and movies. It's a mechanism you can see and touch, connected directly to your telephone line.

Mobile phones may be tapped, too. The most common way is to install software or spyware on your phone. Someone near you - perhaps up to 60 yards away - could use software on a computer or a smartphone to listen to your sell phone conversations, too.

VoIP (voice over internet protocol) technology poses special problems. Anyone near your home or office may use software on a computer or a smartphone, or even scanners used to monitor police and fire communications, to listen to your phone calls.

Stop the Snoops

No matter what type of phone you use, there are steps you can take to prevent hacks and taps:

  • Don't share your voicemail password with anyone
  • Change the factory preset password for voicemail, and use a strong password that's not easy to guess
  • Check with your wireless provider for information on when your voicemail account and other features were accessed
  • Look at your monthly bill to see how often your voicemail number was called
  • Have a professional examine your phone or telephone lines for security breaches
  • Be careful when allowing someone to "sync" their phone with your phone. Is the person trustworthy?
  • Use encryption software to make VoIP calls secure
  • Choose apps for a mobile phone wisely. Hackers can add a virus or malware when downloading the app, giving the hackers access to your phone

Contact your local police department and telephone service provider once you have reason to believe your phone as been tapped or hacked.

Don't let paranoia take over. The odds are very slim that someone is hacking or tapping your phone. But by taking a few safety precautions you can help make sure it doesn't happen and your privacy is protected.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I install spyware or software on my child's cell phone? What about my spouse's?
  • Are wireless providers legally responsible for voicemail and other cell phone security breaches?
  • I think my phone is tapped but the police won't take a report or investigate my complaint. What can I do now?
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