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SIM-Swap Attacks Pose a Real Danger – Here Is How to Protect Yourself

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As it turns out, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) does not always practice what it preaches.  Despite being tasked with protecting investors and encouraging them to employ robust security practices like two-factor authentication (2FA), the SEC was embarrassed on the eve of the anticipated spot-Bitcoin ETF approvals when it was caught with this crucial feature deactivated.

The result? A hacker accessed the agency's official X account through a SIM-Swap attack and promptly tweeted that the agency had approved the products before the official decision.  This resulted in significant amounts of capital being liquidated as markets reacted to the news, harming the very investors the agency is tasked with protecting.

With an increasing amount of investors using their mobile devices for storing and interacting with sensitive data, this event serves as a warning story to all – learn how a SIM-Swap attack works so that you can protect against them, ensuring your funds, data and accounts remain secure.

What is a SIM-Swap Attack, and How Do They Work?

A SIM-Swap attack, also known as a SIM interchange or SIM port hack is a type of identity theft that poses significant risks to personal and financial security.  Below is a breakdown of how this attack is typically performed so that you can prepare and protect yourself against them.

Step 1: The first step in these types of attacks is to identify a target.  For a hacker, this usually means someone with either a wealth of resources to steal or influence within a market to manipulate.  Once identified, time is spent gathering as much information as possible on the target (e.g., account information, asset holdings, etc.)  This information is typically attained through phishing attacks, social media, data exposure from company leaks, and more.

Step 2: Once a target is identified and sufficient information is gathered, the hacker will proceed with full-on identity theft.  This involves contacting the target's mobile service provider and pretending to be the legitimate account holder.  Here, the hacker will either claim they have lost or damaged their SIM card or are switching to a new phone that requires a different-sized SIM card.  Then, using the previously gathered information on the target, the hacker will provide ‘private' information for verification.

Step 3: With verification now approved by the mobile provider, the original SIM card is deactivated, while the new one that the hacker owns takes its place.  This means that the targets phone number has now been transferred and is under the control of someone else without them knowing.

Step 4: Now that a hacker has control of the target's number, accessing their accounts becomes quick and easy as they can reset passwords, view sensitive data, disseminate fake news, and more.

SIM-Swap Prevention Strategies

So, how do we prevent ourselves from becoming the next victim of a hacker?  Knowledge, and not succumbing to complacency; no one thinks they will become a victim, until they are.  This means being mindful of what information you share online, practicing good password habits along with a reputable password manager, 2FA, and staying appraised of common practices like phishing attempts.

Needless to say, becoming the victim of a SIM-Swap attack can have serious ramifications.

Financial Loss:  Attackers can drain bank accounts, make unauthorized purchases, or steal cryptocurrencies.
Identity Theft:  Access to personal accounts can lead to further identity theft, enabling attackers to commit fraud under the victim's name.
Loss of Privacy:  Attackers can gain access to personal photos, messages, and sensitive data.
Business Risks:  For business professionals, such attacks can lead to corporate espionage or unauthorized access to sensitive business data.
Reputational Damage:  Social media account takeovers can result in reputational damage if attackers post inappropriate content.

We recently detailed ‘5 Simple Ways to Secure Your Online Account‘, with quick and easy prevention strategies that all should take.

By understanding and implementing these preventative measures, individuals and organizations can significantly reduce their risk of falling victim to SIM-swap attacks.

What About eSIMs?

eSIMs, or embedded SIMs, are a relatively new technology that can impact how SIM-Swapping attacks occur.  An eSIM is a digital SIM that allows users to activate a cellular plan from a carrier without using a physical SIM card.  This approach comes with a few benefits that make it harder for such attacks to be successful.  However, they are by no means invulnerable.

Harder to Physically Steal or Swap:  Since eSIMs are embedded directly into the device and are not physical cards that can be removed or replaced, they make traditional methods of SIM-swapping more difficult.
Remote Management:  eSIMs can be managed remotely by the carrier, which can potentially make it more difficult for attackers to deceive customer service representatives into transferring service to a new SIM.
Enhanced Authentication:  The process of activating an eSIM often involves more secure methods of authentication, making it harder for attackers to impersonate the legitimate owner.
Less Reliance on Physical Stores:  With eSIMs, there's less need for physical interaction (like visiting a store to get a new SIM card), reducing opportunities for social engineering attacks in those settings.

Overall, the shift towards eSIMs could reduce the frequency of traditional SIM-swap attacks as the process becomes more digital and potentially more secure.  However, this does not eliminate the risk entirely, as attackers may adopt strategies to exploit weaknesses in digital provisioning processes, device security, or carrier systems.  Furthermore, eSIMs are still a fairly new approach, and not yet supported by every device and/or mobile carrier.

Final Thoughts

Living in an increasingly digital world has opened new avenues toward wealth, bettered our ability to communicate, and brought convenience to services that used to be anything but.  Unfortunately, this shift toward the digital has also opened dangerous doors that ill-intentioned hackers can exploit.  The only solution is to educate oneself on the dangers that exist, and to protect against them – no one will do this for you.

So, take the time to set up 2FA, utilize a password manager, transition to an eSIM, and at the end of the day, you will be able to rest a little better knowing that your data and assets are just a little bit more secure.

Joshua Stoner is a multi-faceted working professional. He has a great interest in the revolutionary 'blockchain' technology.