Is Someone Listening To Your Phone Messages?

By Stephen D. Simpson, CFA | July 19, 2011 AAA

Most of us put a premium on our privacy, but as the News Corp/News of the World scandal in the U.K. has shown again, we cannot always assume that our privacy is secure. In fact, this current scandal is not all that exceptional. Paris Hilton was subjected to a similar violation about six years ago, and numerous celebrities (including Sienna Miller and Scarlett Johansson) have had their cellphones hacked - often in an attempt to garner some salacious bit of information or compromising photo that can go straight to newstands and websites. (For some ways to keep your information safe, check out Tips For Keeping Your Financial Data Safe Online.)

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Not surprisingly, many people are wondering just how safe their technology is and whether or not someone may be listening to their phone messages. So, what steps can people take to minimize the risks that their own information can be stolen from them?

Use a Little Common Sense and Originality
According to a study by Daniel Amitay, and assuming that Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL) iPhone users are basically as smart and security-savvy as anybody else, I can dial my way into any iPhone user's voice mail and have about a 5% chance of accessing their voice mail simply by assuming that they used "1234" as their PIN number. Add "0000" and "2580" (which is straight down the middle of a keypad) and the odds jump to almost one-in-10.

Using such a predictable PIN makes listening in to your voicemail far too easy for someone inclined to mischief or theft. Likewise, it is unwise to use a PIN that can be easily figured out or guessed by a would-be hacker (including birthdays, Social Security numbers, anniversaries and so on). Said differently, don't ever use a number that could be figured out simply by going through your wallet or employee HR file. At the same time, consider changing the password every once in a while and/or using different passwords for different devices - yes, it is a headache, but if you are worried about someone using your voicemail against you, it is probably worth it.

Protect What Can Be Protected
Another surprisingly common way of accessing someone's voicemail without their permission is Caller ID spoofing. In simple terms, Caller ID spoofing allows someone to make a call under the guise of your number. As apparently many cellphone users have their voicemail set up to automatically recognize and grant access to their own number without a PIN, that gives the spoofer open entry to the voicemail (and sometimes other information as well).

Here too a relatively simple solution can save a lot of headaches - set up your account in such a way that a PIN is required at all times to access the voicemail system. (With a PIN become one of the preferred ways to keep your information secure, check out 5 ATM Scams That Can Break The Bank.)

Going a Step Beyond
There are, of course, more sophisticated ways of gaining access and entry to someone's cellphone and private information. As is the case with computers, malware on a cellphone can open doors to a hacker without the user ever knowing there was a problem. Along similar lines, a process known as "bluesnarfing" takes advantage of wireless connections to intercept data and information.

Once again, common sense prevails. Although it is impossible to prevent any and all bad code from reaching your devices (Adobe Acrobat, for instance, is more vulnerable than many people realize), do not open or download anything from an unrecognized source. Likewise, do not hunt around for free apps with the expectation that you can get a free lunch - the app may indeed not require you to hand over dollars, but the malware it could contain might make it very expensive in the long run.

Good News and Bad News
It is just an unfortunate reality of life that there are plenty of people willing to lie, cheat, steal in the name of money, power, or just malicious pleasure. While most people probably have no reason to fear that a reporter is trying to break into their voicemail, you never know when a jealous former partner, business rival, or garden variety miscreant may look to stir up trouble.

Luckily, there is quite a lot that most people can do for themselves. For starters, it is probably a good idea to keep as little embarrassing or incriminating information as possible. Though it seems quite a few would-be Hollywood starlets have not yet figured out the simple math that they can't be blackmailed with a tape if they don't make one in the first place, you don't have to make the same mistake. Likewise, anybody truly bothered by the sort of shenanigans conducted by News Corp would do well to pay attention to the behavior of the media sources they patronize. If people vote with their wallets and boycott media organizations that routinely violate people's privacy, there will be less incentive to do it.

The Bottom Line
Spending just a few moments setting up a voicemail system properly and using just a bit of imagination with PINs can pretty much squelch the vast majority of easy routes to your private information. While it is probably impossible to ever keep anything digital 100% secure, just these simple steps will likely convince most would-be thieves that accessing your information is more trouble than it's worth. (For some digital protection, check out 6 Security Apps You Should Know About.)

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