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Phone Upgrade Scams Can Kill. Here's How to Avoid Them

Have you upgraded your phone recently with your wireless carrier? If you haven't, it's possible that someone else has. Unauthorized phone upgrades made by identity thieves are becoming common, and the consequences range from annoying to deadly.

For one elderly couple in Pennsylvania, a thieving third party depriving them of cell service may have resulted in one fatality — or two, depending on how liberal you want to get with cause and effect.

Security journalist Brian Krebs recently summarized the story of James William Schwartz and MaryLou Schwartz on his KrebsonSecurity blog. MaryLou was suffering from the end stages of endometrial cancer, and James was her caretaker.

When James fell victim to a heart attack in February of this year, MaryLou was unable to reach a family member for assistance on her cellphone., The line had been fraudulently transferred to another user on a fancier phone by an identity thief who had walked into a Verizon store in Orlando, Fla., the previous day, put down a cash deposit and "upgraded" the account to three new iPhones. The bulk of the upgrade cost was borne by MaryLou's account.

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(Numerous parties have pointed out that MaryLou could still have dialed 911, which generally works from any phone, regardless of subscription status. On the other hand, it's easy to understand how an aged, infirm, panicking person could neglect to realize this in the heat of the moment. James had a cellphone too, but the lawsuit said it took MaryLou 40 minutes to grab it with a mechanical arm.)

James died that night, and MaryLou about two weeks later. This month, their daughters sued the franchising company operating the Orlando Verizon store for injuries and damages, arguing that the store had failed to verify that the account upgrader had indeed been MaryLou Schwartz.

While readers can quibble about whether or not a phone-scam upgrade caused one or both of the deaths, it's at least fair to say that not being able to dial a family member in a desperate situation didn't help matters.

The scam doesn't only affect sickly elderly people, either. Lorrie Cranor, chief technologist of the Federal Trade Commission, had a similar experience earlier this year. Her phone stopped working, and she found that someone had purchased two new iPhones in her name.

In Cranor's case, the thief used a fake ID bearing Cranor's name but the thief's photo. Cranor's carrier told her a company-owned retail store would have asked for ID as well as the last four digits of her Social Security number, but that a franchisee-owned store might not have. Regulations also vary depending on the retailer, and when a salesperson makes money from commissions, or just tries to be helpful, rules may sometimes be bent.

In fact, as Krebs pointed out, it's maddeningly difficult to determine how these impostors wander into stores and "prove" their identities. Even with providers that require PINs or passwords before modifying accounts, there are usually other ways to verify one's identity, including Social Security number, date of birth and similar information that a cybercriminal could nevertheless conceivably obtain.

While it's not a foolproof solution, cellphone owners would be wise to contact their wireless providers and ensure that they have an account PIN or password set up. AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile all offer safeguards, which Krebs outlined in a "What You Can Do" section. The process is nearly identical for all four carriers: Simply call them and ask to establish a PIN or password that would be required before making any monetary changes to the account.

It's not clear exactly how widespread this type of scam has become. The FTC logged 2,658 such incidents in January 2016, but the number could be vastly underreported, since not every scammed person contacts the FTC — or, like the Schwartzes, is even aware that he or she has been scammed.

There is no surefire way to protect yourself from all forms of phone theft, but taking a few precautions could be the difference between an odd phone call from your carrier and a few hundred extra dollars on your monthly bill.