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March 20, 2017

Recycled Numbers: A Gateway to Fraudulent Activity

It seems like every time you turn on the TV, there’s a chance that you’ll see at least four commercials promoting the main mobile carriers. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile seem to be in a constant war to steal each other’s customers by enticing them with no contracts and unlimited data. Since the never ending slew of these commercials is, in fact, never ending, it’s safe to say that these methods work well for the carriers. But have you ever wondered what happens to your phone number after you switch carriers? It gets recycled. This is why you’ve probably gotten some wrong-number texts a time or two after getting a new phone.

Phone number recycling, which TeleSign defines as an industry term referring to when a deactivated/disconnected number gets reassigned to someone else, typically in 90 days - but  can be faster in high-demand area codes (212, 310, etc.). While informing someone’s ex-boyfriend that he now has the wrong number may be annoying, it’s not the end of the world. However, recycled numbers can cause several other problems.

Recycled Numbers and Fraud

Mobile phones are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s great that we have access to all of our accounts—and basically everything important in our lives—right at our fingertips. On the other hand, this opens us up to fraud, and can be very dangerous if we choose to recycle our numbers without updating our account information. I’d be willing to bet that, like me, you have all of your secure accounts text you a verification code when logging in from a new device. That’s all well and good, but what if you recycle your number and forget to update that setting? Whoever gets your new phone number can then hack into your accounts by using this verification method, thus compromising your identity and partaking in all sorts of fraudulent activity.

Recycled numbers can also prove to be a problem if the original user had subscribed to receive automated notifications. In 2014, Twitter had an action filed against it in the Northern District of California for allegedly sending automated text messages to subscribers with recycled phone numbers. Since the new owners had not given consent to receive these messages, they felt that their privacy was being infringed upon. Although a scenario like this is annoying, people tend to become even more upset if their new number falls victim to fraudulent A2P messaging and grey routes.

The Solution

While recycled numbers are a good idea in theory, they open people up to several types of fraud that may not have affected them before. It has become such a problem that the FCC has even regulated it with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) in 2015. The TCPA is designed to give power back to consumers who are tired of receiving unwanted calls. Any company that does not comply with the TCPA can be fined $11,000 by the FCC per incident.

With hefty fines serving as a good incentive, carriers are embracing solutions that help customers with recycled numbers to avoid unwanted messages and protect their data. These solutions also help businesses analyze which numbers still belong to the same person, thus enabling them to save recycled number users from a barrage of unwanted messages. For example, TeleSign offers PhoneID which, “provides a variety of phone-based risk indicators that companies can integrate into their systems to better [assess] the risk of a user based on their phone number. One such indicator is Number Deactivation, which helps customers determine when a phone number has been truly deactivated– based on carriers’ phone number data and our proprietary analysis.  This empowers companies to update account details and avoid accidently leaking user data before a number is moved over to a new user.”

Early Warning has a similar solution that helps businesses verify the names associated with phone numbers and Neustar offers an Intermodal Ported Telephone Number Service, which “provides two files consisting of lists of intermodal ports of telephone numbers between wireline-to-wireless ports and wireless-to-wireline ports.” These files are updated on a daily basis, meaning that contact information is always up-to-date, giving businesses and operators a fighting chance at avoiding fines.

There are several solutions available to help companies and operators make sure that their services are TCPA-compliant. Those that fail to keep an eye on this issue open their customers up to several types of fraud, which not only results in fines from the FCC, but can also hurt your reputation.  Can you afford to frustrate or harm customers?

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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