Beware of mobile phone scams

Online Threats, Phone

2620808649_ebea8d9b07_zArriving at the Frankfurt airport late in the evening. The flight was almost on schedule so I have some 30 minutes left before the final leg to Helsinki. A nice opportunity to check my mail and the latest headlines. What a blessing with free WiFi on the airports! And Frankfurt is no exception; the “open network available” -indicator is on when I grab the phone. And there we have the welcome-screen that pops up in the browser. But wait a minute, this one looks different. “Please fill in your mobile phone number and select your country. We will send you an SMS with details about how to log into the wireless network.”

Stop! You should always stop and think when an unknown website asks for your mobile phone number (well, actually when asked for any kind of personal information). Knowing your number is the key prerequisite for someone who want to scam you with premium rate text messages. Ask yourself the following questions when you encounter a page like this:

  • In what way do I benefit from giving my phone number to this organization? Do they have a valid reason to reach me by phone?
  • Do I know this organization and is it trustworthy? Do I even know what organization I am dealing with?
  • Am I accepting legal terms when submitting my number? Have I read them and did I understand them?
  • Do I need to participate at all? Can I live without the opportunity to win an iPod, or whatever they offer me?

Most people already know that one should be careful when entering mail addresses at fishy websites. Your junk mail folder may start to fill up much faster than before. But what about your mobile phone number? It’s easy to forget that the mobile number is a key to a billing system. It can be a lot more harmful if it gets in the wrong hands. You may get an unpleasant surprise in the next phone bill.

How does the scam work? Someone puts up a web page where you can sign up for anything that sounds interesting. A lottery is a typical example. Your phone number is required as part of your personal information. And you are of course keen to get it right as you want to make sure they can reach you if you win. There’s also the usual checkbox indicating that you accept the terms, but who cares about those legal details?

Well, you should care. Somewhere deep down in the terms there is a paragraph where you agree to receive informational text messages, or whatever they are called, for a price that can be several Euros each. Yes, that’s right. The billing system of our mobile phones supports messages that are paid by the recipient. This scheme is not even illegal as you have agreed to receive them. And needless to say, the sender is impossible to reach if you change your mind and want to terminate the agreement.

You should leave out your phone number or steer clear of the site if you have any doubts about it. If the organization isn’t trusted, but you still feel that you really have to participate, get familiar with the legal terms. Yes, I really mean reading them!

Another variant of the scam is to send you an unexpected text message that invites you to a quiz, a lottery or something else. Responding to the message means in practice that you sign up to the scam.

So what about Frankfurt? Well, the page asking for my phone number was pretty nicely designed. It looked legit. But there was a legal document that users must accept. So I decided to not use the network. It’s much nicer to spend the remaining 20 minutes before departure reading a good book about sailing in the Mediterranean than reading legal terms.

Micke

PS. I’m of course not claiming that the Frankfurt network login is a scam. The point is that I can’t know for sure, and I don’t have to take the risk as the benefit I could have gained was very small.

Photo by whiteafrican @ Flickr

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13 Comments

Did you notify Frankfurt airport. The Wifi access point may have been fake. And fake or not, Frankfurt may want to do something about this if you request them.

No, I didn’t. Because frankly speaking I don’t think it was a scam. Just an excellent example of something that should make you stop and think. I didn’t have to reach the net so I had no reason to take even a small risk. The page was probably an attempt to keep track of who’s on the WiFi, which in turn may help trace those who misuse the network.

Hi Micke, I had the same reaction as jandoggen when I read your story, particularly since I am sometimes at FRA myself. I understand your answer and want to point out that in Germany any provider of a WiFi network (or WLAN as it’s also called) can be liable for his users’ activities, so you’re bound to have to identify yourself in some way to the provider so authorities could track you down in case of abuse or criminal activities. I personally welcome this and abhor plain open WiFis and would only use one if I can start up a VPN connection straight away. When on the move I always switch off my Wireless connection and use my provider’s 3G network.
That said, in the case of your open WiFi and in line with your reasoning you can indeed decide whether you agree to provide your phone number when it could also be handled differently and less scam-prone, e.g. by showing your ID at a counter and receiving a password for the WiFi network.

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I have virtually no understanding of coding but I was hoping to start my own blog in
the near future. Anyway, if you have any suggestions or tips
for new blog owners please share. I understand
this is off subject but I simply had to ask. Thanks!

Thanks. Blogging itself is not hard. You just type your posts into a web interface. 🙂 Safe & Savvy is hosted at WordPress.com and anyone can create a free blog there. It’s really easy to start, you do not need to code anything yourself. You will find tons of advice on the net if you google for it. My primary advice would be to first carefully plan what the blog’s purpose is. You need to define the focus of the blog and what kind of reader you target. Then it will be more interesting for your readers. Good luck and happy blogging.

I’d like to thank you for the efforts you have put in writing this site. I really hope to view the same high-grade content from you in the future as well. In truth, your creative writing abilities has motivated me to get my own blog now 😉

Hi again Micke,
I understand this was only an example to highlight best practices in unknown WiFi networks. However, for the benefit of your next trip to/via FRA here’s some info on their free WiFi Service:
http://www.frankfurt-airport.com/content/frankfurt_airport/en/news/fra-is-first-airport-in-germany-to-offer-free-w-lan-internet-acc.html
Apparently the service itself is offered by Deutsche Telekom’s HotSpots. I guess it is them who ask for your registration to track your free 30 minutes.
Generally: when I get templates that ask me for more info than the provider needs (as in this case) I leave the item blank or fill it with dummy numbers. Unless they give me clear info on why they need it and how they handle the data.

Gnaaa, just realized my mistake. In this example your article does explain why they need your mobile number: to send you the access code by SMS. Designed that way…

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