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Thieves take advantage of wireless customers in new ways

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SEDALIA, MO a (KCTV) – Mobile devices are doing more than ever, and thieves are taking advantage of wireless customers in new ways.

David Walker’s cell phone keeps family at his fingertips. On Memorial Day, the father of three from Sedalia suddenly got disconnected.

“I get the text message from AT&T saying, hey we received your request to change your pin if you didn’t make this request call us immediately,” Walker said.

Walker called AT&T but it was too late. The wireless carrier had already released his phone number to a thief, thousands of miles away.

“My first reaction,” he said. “Why would you send me a text message if you’ve already ported my number?”

Transferring Walker’s number to another cell phone carrier is called number portability, or porting. Ironically, porting started about ten years ago to protect consumers who wanted to keep their phone number while switching carriers.

Here’s how it works: a thief calls your cell provider posing as you wanting to switch your number to a different phone carrier. A criminal needs your name, number and last four digits of your social security number to take ownership of your cell phone number.

“I grabbed my phone and tried to use it and it says emergency calls only,” Walker said.

Hours after a fraudster stole Walker’s identity and hijacked his phone, the criminal used Walker’s credit card number to charge a $15 meal at an east coast restaurant.

When Capital One called to verify the purchase was made by Walker, the call went to the crook because the phone had been ported.

“That person says yes that was me and that takes the validation out of it,” Walker said.

KCTV5 News wanted to know how often people like Walker are exploited by cell phone hijackers looking to make a quick buck.

AT&T senior public relations manager Chris Lester sent KCTV5 this statement:

“AT&T Mobility takes the privacy and security of our customer’s accounts very seriously. It also takes seriously its obligations to comply with FCC rules on number porting (i.e. the movement of a phone number to another wireless provider without authority). AT&T and the rest of the wireless industry continue to be challenged by “unauthorized ports”, even though they comprise a very small percentage of all ports in the U.S.

AT&T Mobility does not initiate a port out request. Rather, in the wireless industry, the “winning carrier” initiates the port out request by providing the “losing carrier” with the porting telephone number, customer account number, zip code, and PIN/passcode, if applicable. Once the “losing carrier” receives this essential data, it must respond to the request and port the number. The porting process then occurs automatically without manual intervention. In this case, T-Mobile—the winning carrier—provided AT&T with the valid essential data required to port a telephone number, and the port occurred automatically. FCC rules prevent wireless carriers from delaying a port and from calling and attempting to win-back customers seeking to port because those actions would hinder competition.”

Lester also provided a 2013 Power Point presentation by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

NARUC members are responsible for assuring reliable utility service at fair, just and reasonable rates. In 2013 the group published an eight slide presentation about unauthorized ports.

Any new regulatory or legislative mandates that focus on unauthorized ports alone, stand a very strong change of negatively impacting the other 99.9 percent.

The Federal Communications Commission tries to help the small percentage of defrauded consumers; however, they rely on filed complaints to change legislation and make laws tougher.

Walker says he’s filed a complaint with the FCC and his local lawmaker.

“I thought if this happened to me I just need to let other people know,” Walker said.

KCTV5 contacted eight major wireless providers. All of them recommend calling your provider to set up additional security like a unique pin and verification questions to avoid fraudulent porting.

The law protects porting victims from incurring financial loss, but sorting out the problem with a wireless carrier can take hours and in most cases you won’t get or want your phone number back.