The Better Business Bureau has issued a nationwide alert as a scam stealing thousands of dollars from T-Mobile customers expands.
Since Redmond police said they are investigating seven cases of scammers stealing T-Mobile phone numbers so they can access customers’ bank accounts, KIRO 7 has discovered cases in Bellingham, Lynnwood, SeaTac, and Kent.
“How was it so easy for someone to just go in there and steal my phone number?” Jeff Magee asked.
He had his number stolen overnight on Sunday, Jan. 28, and realized it had happened when it phone stopped getting service.
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“Then I turned my WiFi on and that’s when I got an email alert from Wells Fargo saying my password has been changed,” he said.
“So when you see that, what do you think?” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.
“I was like, Oh my god, what’s going on?” Magee said. “Because I didn’t change it.”
Magee shared his emails with KIRO 7 to show just how quickly thieves worked. Just four minutes after his password was changed on his Wells Fargo bank account, Magee received another emailing notifying him he had sent $1,361 to someone named T.G.
“They sent it through Zelle to somebody,” Magee said.
Zelle is an app like Venmo that people can use to send money to each other with an email address or phone, and it a consistent component of this growing scam. Thieves used it when they tried to steal $1,920 from Carrie Hartwig in Everett.
"They basically, yeah, stole my number -- they had my phone cut off," Hartwig said.
The scam is not just specific to T-Mobile. Redmond police say the phone porting scam could affect anyone with a mobile phone who does not have a second layer of protection, an additional passcode, set up.
For Hartwig, the trouble started the morning of Jan. 7, when she got a text message from T-Mobile alerting her about a change in her service.
"I said wait a minute, no, I did not authorize any changes to my account!" she said.
Hartwig said customer service was of little help, but after repeated attempts, she finally got service restored to her phone.
The moment that happened, Hartwig received a fraud alert from Chase bank.
"It was $1,920 dollars and I had $1,930 in the account," she said. "So they had successfully got on my account, got on my bank account, saw what we had in the bank, and tried to take all but $10."
Fortunately, Hartwig was able to contact the bank in time, and they froze her account before thieves were able to gain access to the money.
Redmond police spokesperson Andrea Wolf-Buck said they had never seen this specific scam until cases started popping up in December.
"People are very creative and inventive with finding ways to steal," she said.
She explained it all starts with thieves getting your personal information: your name, phone number and likely your Social Security number.
Then, in this case, the thieves take their victim's T-Mobile phone number, and using that personal information, they transfer that number to Metro PCS, which is actually owned by T-Mobile. That means their Metro PCS phone now has the victim's phone number attached to it, and the victim's phone no longer works.
Technology experts say thieves then contact the victim's bank and when they want to reset the password on that account, a verification code is sent to the phone number on the mobile device in the scammer's hands. That allows thieves to get in and empty out, or at least try to empty out, the account.
"The victims we've seen in the seven different reports we've had -- there's been anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 taken each time," Wolf-Buck said.
KIRO 7 reached out to Bellevue-based T-Mobile for comment. Its media relations team did not want to talk on camera, but it did provide a link to a part of the T-Mobile website dedicated to this scam. It states in part, "Our industry is experiencing a phone number port out scam that could impact you."
The site recommends people "call 611 from your T-Mobile phone ... [and] create a 6-to-15-digit passcode that will be added to your account."
If anyone tries to steal your number, "the new carrier will be required to validate the request with T-Mobile using your passcode."
It's something Carrie Hartwig wishes she had known before. She received a text from T-Mobile warning her about the scam more than a week after she was targeted.
"I'm angry," she said.
The Redmond Police Department advises people to file reports with their local police. Redmond police work with the Greater Puget Sound Financial Fraud and Identity Theft Task Force, which consists of local agencies, federal agencies, and banks focused on trying to track and prevent these types of scams.
“I think a lot of people are not reporting it,” Magee said.
“But you’re going to report it now?” reporter Linzi Sheldon asked.
“Oh, I’m going to now,” he said. “It’s frustrating.”
Bellevue police and Seattle police said they do not have any cases of using this kind of scam at this point.
Police are advising anyone with a cellphone to check with their wireless carrier and make sure they have that extra passcode set up to prevent this from happening.
Reports show similar scams hitting Verizon, Sprint and AT&T customers in 2016 and as recently as August 2017.
Google Voice: https://voice.google.com/signup
City of Redmond Identity Theft Page: http://redmond.gov/PublicSafety/Police/tips/identity_theft/
Better Business Bureau Warning: https://www.bbb.org/en/us/article/news-releases/17019-bbb-issues-alert-about-cell-phone-porting-scams
Cox Media Group