Smartphones have become such an integral part of our everyday lives that many users joke their devices have become grafted to their hands. We use them to maintain contact in our work and personal lives, correspond through email and social media, and a bulk of Americans have made the transition to conducting their banking through the use of mobile applications. As developers continue their bottomless pursuit to create an app for everything, more and more of our real, flesh-and-blood lives are being stored on our phones: personal details, account numbers, passwords, and other sensitive information that could be misused if it fell into the wrong hands. That’s why smartphone users have to educate themselves on the specifics of a scam called “SIM card swapping.”
What is SMS?
For many telephone, internet, and smart device developers, SMS (short message service) text messaging is the cornerstone of their services. As of 2010, it was the most utilized service provided by communication companies with 3.5 billion users. It became a vital tool in direct marketing campaigns and remains one of the most popular forms of communication in younger users. Because of the ubiquity of smartphones, many companies that require a two-step authentication process for their users’ security implement SMS as a secure means of accessing information. For example, you attempt to log in to your bank account, correctly entering your username and secure password. It’s not uncommon for banking apps to prompt a second form of verification, so the app tells you it will now be sending a four-digit verification code to your phone that you must enter on the app to confirm that you are who you say you are. The code is sent to your phone via SMS. Once this information is transmitted over SMS, users are often derelict in deleting that information from their devices. This is where users are vulnerable to the scam.
How SIM swap scams work
Smartphone users who have lost their phone or who have been the victim of a theft often have the ability to call their mobile provider and provide their secure information in order to have the provider remotely wipe the SIM card and have that information transferred to another phone. Thieves in search of secure information will use tools like phishing mail campaigns, posing as legitimate companies like insurance and credit card companies to get the victim to willingly hand over identifying information such as date of birth, address, and phone number. Once they have enough identifying information, they will call the victim’s mobile provider and pose as a customer. They claim they’ve lost their phone or their phone was stolen from them. Then, using the victim’s identifying information, they will request that the mobile provider remotely wipe their old SIM card and rewrite it to the SIM card in their new device. Just like that, the thief has any and all information that has ever been transmitted via SMS text. This leaves accounts, email inboxes, and secure information vulnerable to fraud. “A high proportion of banking customers now have mobile phone numbers linked with their accounts,” fraud prevention consultant, Emma Mohan-Satta, told Digital Trends, “and so this attack is becoming common in some regions where this attack was not previously so common. Unlike mobile malware, SIM fraud attacks are usually aimed at profitable victims who have been specifically targeted through successful social engineering.”
Who is vulnerable?
Anyone who uses their smartphone as part of a two-step authentication is vulnerable to a SIM card swap scam. Once the thief has their hands on your personal information, they can devastate you in minutes by performing bank transfers, rerouting mail, and making purchases in your name. If the SIM card contained any compromising information, such as lewd photos or inappropriate communication with another person, the perpetrators can use that information to blackmail a victim into paying a tidy sum in exchange for the return of the compromising data. A victim named Tina told Motherboard, “This just happened to me over the weekend. I lost service late Saturday night and assumed it was an issue with my always buggy iPhone. Then on Sunday morning my husband got a text from T-Mobile saying that a line on our phone plan had been cancelled (mine) and i soon discovered that $1200 had wired out of my bank account to someone in [redacted] with my same last name.”
While the cost to a single individual can be devastating, a sophisticated thief can do even more to topple a business like a house of cards. It’s common practice for some types of employers to issue their employees a company cell phone to facilitate business, and in this day and age, that almost certainly means a smart phone. Correspondence between coworkers, appointments, account numbers, and sensitive company information can be exposed and exploited for gain. Companies that carry high financial sums in their accounts can be ruined before they even realize there’s a problem.
How to protect yourself
Dependence on smart phones to facilitate two-step authentication plagues many users throughout the country who enjoy the convenience of verifying their identity through SMS. Luckily, tech sites like Motherboard recommend a few ways you can protect your identity and your monies.
Beef up account security
Many major cell phone service providers are developing new methods of two-step authentication in light of the rise of SIM card swap scams. Many offer their customers the option to set up a secure PIN for their account, completely separate from the login information used to access their account. The PIN is used as a primary verification feature specifically for when customers call into the support center for SIM card-related issues. Previously, many providers opted for a security question for this type of authentication, but the answers to these security questions can often be found on a victim’s social media, such as, “Which high school did you attend?” This way, the PIN is never transmitted through SMS text messaging, and no personal information from a social media profile can be used against them.
Don’t link your number to your online accounts
Once a thief has access to your account, they can easily reset your password and other authentication methods, making it very difficult to quash the problem. Instead of linking your mobile cell phone to your accounts, you can choose a different sort of number, such as a Google Voice number.
Many individuals and companies bypass security measures for a number of reasons, such as lack of time, interest, or the mere belief that they could never be the victim of a SIM card swapping scam. The reality is that it can happen to anyone, and there’s no shortage of victims for scammers. Users who practice their due-diligence can build a security to block them out. When the scammer hits this wall, they simply move on to the next target. Educate yourself and ensure that target isn’t you.
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. For more information on investigation topics, missing persons, and corporate solutions, please visit our website.
FMLA fraud can devastate a company, but companies should protect the integrity of their investigations to protect themselves.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides working families balance to their lives when their circumstances take a turn. Whether it’s caring for new life in the household—such as a newborn or a foster child—or to care for an ailing relative, the 1993 act protects employees from being terminated from their jobs when they must take an extended absence for a specific set of reasons. However, abuses of FMLA are extremely common in the American workforce. While suspicions of FMLA abuse should be taken seriously by employers, companies must conduct thorough and unbiased investigations before terminating any employees. Businesses who do not follow protocol can open themselves up to expensive litigation.
In addition to protecting employees from termination during an extended leave, FMLA also requires their various insurance coverage remain in effect. This protection can be guaranteed for up to 12 weeks. According to the Department of Labor:
FMLA is designed to help employees balance their work and family responsibilities by allowing them to take reasonable unpaid leave for certain family and medical reasons. It also seeks to accommodate the legitimate interests of employers and promote equal employment opportunity for men and women.
FMLA applies to all public agencies, all public and private elementary and secondary schools, and companies with 50 or more employees. These employers must provide an eligible employee with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for any of the following reasons:
- the birth and care of the newborn child of an employee;
- placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care;
- to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
- medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.
The use of FMLA within these guidelines (with some exceptions) is designed to protect hard-working men and women from losing their jobs when their family suddenly requires their attention. Life can change so fast, and employees can rest easy knowing their jobs will be waiting for them when they are able to return in top-performing condition.
According to Charlie Plumb, an attorney who represents clients in all phases of management, abuse of this protection should be investigated, provided the employer has an “honest suspicion.” He goes on to say, “This honest suspicion standard is really intended to protect the employer against a claim they are interfering against FMLA leave and/or being retaliatory.”
A familiar scenario is one where an employee has been granted leave under FMLA for a serious illness or injury. The employer then happens to see posts from the employee on social media having fun out with friends, exercising, or driving. The employer might think, “If they’re well enough to do these things, they must be well enough to work.” While this might sound like an open and shut case from the employer’s point of view, Allen Smith of The Society of Human Resources Management, provides an example where this philosophy proved problematic:
“Joan Casciari, an attorney with Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, said she handled a case that involved an employee who was put on FMLA leave for depression. The employer later discovered, through surveillance, she was doing Christmas shopping with her family and having a wonderful time. But her doctor confirmed “retail therapy” was consistent with her condition and the fact she could shop did not mean she did not require FMLA leave.”
Luckily for the employer in this anecdote, they did their due diligence and consulted a medical professional who could corroborate the circumstances of her FMLA qualifications. Some employers are far hastier. When employers do not conduct comprehensive and objective investigations into suspicious FMLA claims, they can open themselves up to lawsuits that can be devastatingly expensive and a public relations nightmare.
Vigilance of adherence to the guidelines of FMLA becomes manageable when Human Resource directors keep an eye out for certain patterns of behavior, such as absence patterns, especially when they coincide with non-work events (holidays or something personal that they may have mentioned in the past). Employers should also be suspicious of absences directly contradicting any medical certification in frequency or duration.
Once an employer has a reasonable suspicion of FMLA abuse, they should most certainly investigate. However, internal investigations into these kinds of abuses can be very messy for Human Resources and upper management. The aforementioned scenario involving “retail therapy” could have been a disaster if the company had not done their due diligence. Some employers are not so diligent.
Another scenario involving a maintenance worker at a nursing home and rehabilitation center panned out much differently. The employee in question noticed his superior was exhibiting a pattern of absence he found suspicious. He began reviewing surveillance footage to compare to his own personal log of her comings and goings in order to prove she was abusing company time. After discovering the independent investigation, the superior served a series of performance adjustments to the employee before terminating him. The termination came after the employee had submitted an FMLA request. The court found the dates of his termination tied in too closely with his request for FMLA, allowing the employee to take the case to trial.
Scenarios like these are why Human Resources and management should 1) be vigilant of FMLA abuse, and 2) conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation in order to ensure the company is protected from litigation. Many companies choose to handle investigations internally in order to minimize the amount of exposure. However, internal investigations spearheaded by current members of staff, will not only disrupt daily operations, but can also have negative effects like the case of the nursing home. The employee conducting his own investigation may have had honest suspicions of his superior’s misconduct, but he was certainly not a unbiased source to investigate.
Private investigators are probative routes often overlooked when a company has an internal investigation. There are many circumstances under which companies do not want to give up control over an internal investigation, and a private investigator is the definition of a third-party. However, the objectivity of a private investigator is the number one reason why companies should consider them as an option. The personal biases of the persons involved in the previous examples caused the investigation to go south. As an independent contractor, a private investigator’s only loyalty is to the truth. They are vital to ensuring an investigation is a transparent expedition for the truth. This goes a long way towards protecting a business from subsequent lawsuits or bad press.
When handling an investigation internally, employers are limited to what surveillance they can attain from their own equipment or social media. Private investigators are licensed to track individuals and photograph their activity in public. Persons who fraudulently claim to be out for injury can be photographed doing tasks directly contradicting their FMLA claim, like yardwork or lifting heavy groceries. In addition to tracking their public movements, private investigators may also conduct undercover operations in order to investigate any frauds. They are invaluable in this regard as they are not known to those within the company. Whether you’re looking for an FMLA weekender or an FMLA moonlighter, if someone has made a fraudulent FMLA claim, a private investigator is the most-equipped professional to prove or disprove the suspicion.