Hack Into Someones Cell Phone Text Messages – Text messaging was currently the weakest link securing almost anything on the Internet, especially since there are tens of thousands of cell phone store clerks who can be tricked or bribed into giving someone else control of a cell phone number. Now we’re learning about an entire ecosystem of companies that anyone can use to silently intercept text messages intended for other cell phone users.
Security researcher “Lucky225” worked with Vice.com’s Joseph Cox to intercept Cox’s text messages with his permission. Lucky225 showed how anyone can do the same after creating an account with a service called Sakari, a company that helps celebrities and businesses with SMS and bulk messaging marketing.
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“How they did it” was uncomfortably simple. It only cost $16 and was well worth it to prevent your text messages from being stolen without your knowledge. Cox writes:
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Sakari offers a free trial for anyone who wants to see what their trading dashboard looks like. The cheapest plan, which allows customers to add phone numbers they want to send and receive text messages to, is $16. Lucky225 provided screenshots of Sakari’s interface showing a red “+” icon where users can add a number. Sakari provides the user with a signature license when adding a number. Sakari’s LOA states that the user shall not engage in any illegal, harassing or inappropriate behavior with the SMS service and phone number. However, as Lucky225 pointed out, a user can sign up using someone else’s number and receive text messages instead.
Lucky225, which is responsible for Okey Systems’ data, said Sakari has since taken steps to block its service for use with mobile numbers. Sakari is just one part of a much larger, illegal industry that can be used to hijack text messages for multiple phone numbers, he said.
“It’s not about Sakari,” Lucky225 replied when first contacted for more information. “This is an industry-wide issue. There are many such “text enabled” providers.
The most common way thieves steal SMS messages today is “SIM swapping,” a crime that involves bribing or tricking wireless carrier employees into changing a customer’s account information.
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By switching the SIM card, the attackers redirect the target’s phone number to the device they control and can then intercept the target’s text messages and phone calls. From there, the attacker can reset the password for any account that uses that phone number to reset passwords.
However, the attacks demonstrated by Lucky225 require customers of each business to sign a “license authorization” or LOA, stating that they are indeed authorized to act on behalf of the owner of the number.
Alison Nixon is a senior research manager at Unit221B, a cyber research firm based in New York. Nixon, an expert on SIM-swapping attacks widely discussed on this blog, said he also let Lucky225 try his hacking tricks on his cell phone, just to watch his incoming text messages display on his phone.
“This basically means that the only thing standing between someone and the equivalent of a SIM card swap is a bogus LOA,” Nixon said. “And the inserted ‘fix’ appears to be of a temporary nature.”
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According to him, the eavesdropping method described by Lucky225 is still dangerously exposed due to the number of system vulnerabilities in the global SMS network.
Most large and legacy carriers approve porting requests for their customers by visiting the NPAC or Number Porting Control Center. When customers want to port their phone number – mobile or otherwise – the request is sent through NPAC to the customer’s operator.
This change request includes a so-called ALT-SPID, which is a four-digit number that allows the NPAC to identify the carrier providing service to the customer. More importantly, no changes can occur as part of this process unless the customer’s carrier approves the changes to the existing customer.
But Lucky225 said the SMS interception batch it is testing targets a series of vulnerabilities associated with a system developed by NetNumber, a privately held company in Lowell, Massachusetts. NetNumber has developed its own network mapping system that is used by Sakari and the entire industry of similar companies.
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NetNumber developed the six-digit ALT SPID (NetNumber ID) to better organize and track communication service providers who all used different numbering systems (and different digits). But NetNumber also works directly with dozens of phone companies or Internet phone companies that don’t follow the same regulatory rules that apply to legacy telecom providers.
Lucky225 explained: There are many VoIP providers that offer “text activation” “off net”. Companies like ZipWhip allow you to “text-enable your existing business phone number” so customers can send text messages to your business’s main line, whether it’s a VoIP, landline or landline.
As Lucky225 wrote in his comprehensive Medium article, there are a number of wholesale VoIP providers that allow you to become a reseller with little or no approval, many of which allow written general licenses (LOAs), where That you, as the reseller, promise to have an LOA on file for each number you want to enable text for your resellers or end users.
Basically, once you have a reseller account with these VoIP wholesalers, you can change the NNID of any phone number to your wholesaler’s NNID and receive SMS text messages with virtually no verification. No SIM swapping, SS7 attacks or port hopping required – just enter your desired phone number in the text field and hit send to receive SMS within minutes. They won’t even get a notification that something has happened, because their voice and data services will continue to work as usual. Surprisingly, despite my disclosure in 2018, nothing was done to stop this relatively simple attack.
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NetNumber declined to comment on the case, instead citing a statement from CTIA, the trade association that represents the wireless industry, which said:
He added: “After learning about this potential threat, we immediately investigated it and took preventive measures. Since then, no carrier has been able to replicate it. We have no evidence of a potential malware threat or that any customers have been affected. Protecting consumer privacy and safety is our highest priority and we will continue to look into this matter.”
Lucky225 said that many major mobile operators have moved to ensure that none of their customers will be affected by the changes requested through NetNumber or its partners. But he suspects some smaller cable and wireless operators may still be vulnerable.
“I’m pretty sure they’re only protecting the big carriers now,” he said. “But there are a lot of things that we don’t know what they’ve fixed because everyone is so nervous about it now.”
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“It’s clear that this is a big mess in the basic infrastructure, and fundamental changes need to be made,” he said. “Legislators really need to get involved.
Given the potentially far-reaching impact of fraudsters exploiting these and other vulnerabilities in the broader mobile ecosystem to undermine the security of SMS-based communications and multi-factor authentication, it’s probably a good idea to reevaluate your relationship with your phone number. It’s now clearer than ever how stupid it is to trust SMS for anything.
My advice has long been to remove phone numbers from your online accounts as much as possible, and avoid selecting text or call for another feature or one-time code. Phone numbers were never designed to be personally identifiable, but they have become. It’s time to stop letting everyone treat them.
Any online account you value should be protected with a unique and strong password, as well as the strongest form of multi-factor authentication available. This is usually a mobile app like Authy or Google Authenticator that generates a unique code. Some sites like Twitter and Facebook now support more powerful options like physical security keys.
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Deleting a phone number can be more important than any email account you have. Sign up for any online service and it will almost certainly require you to enter an email address. In almost all cases, the person controlling this address can reset passwords for all associated services or accounts – just request a password reset by email.
Unfortunately, many email service providers still allow users to reset their account passwords by sending a text message to the phone number registered to the account. Remove the phone number as a backup for your email account and make sure a more reliable alternative is selected for all available account recovery options.
Here’s the thing: Most online services require users to provide their mobile phone number when setting up an account, but they don’t require it to remain associated with the account once it’s created. I recommend
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