The Buzz

with Josh O'Connell

Beware of cell phone cloning.


Sprint LogoHaving spent a number of years working in the cell phone industry, I had heard of, but never personally encountered, an instance of cell phone cloning. In this, a person manages to have a cell phone that “spoofs” another phone, and the network assumes that the fake phone is really the real phone. Why would someone do this? The owner of the real phone gets charged for calls made by the fake phone.

It not only is still a real and present danger, it happened to my mom.

Last month, I got a frantic phone call from her stating that her cell phone was over $2,000. She called Sprint, and they reprogrammed her phones. Today, she called me again: her bill had risen to $6,000. Although the problem has been fixed, the charges made before the fix only showed up now, and Sprint’s fraud department has been looking into it.

Of course, Sprint didn’t credit any of the prior month’s charges when the new bill came out, so they shut her down, which I guess makes sense – you’d cut off someone who owed you $2,000 as well. But that doesn’t exactly make a customer happy. Thankfully, the company appears to be working with her now.

As it turns out, this is not a new issue for Sprint: as early as last May, Sprint was already dealing with the problem with some customers in the Virgin Islands. While the problem is rare, it does happen, and it’s important to be wary of the possibility of this.

As a reminder to everyone, it’s important to check your cell phone bill each month, whether for plan features or charges you didn’t ask for, all the way to issues like what mom is dealing with. It’s especially important because many people opt for autopay on a cell phone bill, and given that these issues generally take a couple of weeks to research and resolve, autopay could be triggered before the bill is fixed. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not have to deal with a $2,000 withdrawl from my bank account.

If it does happen to you, all of the cell phone companies have a fraud department whose sole job is to research issues like this. They’re generally responsive; in my mom’s case, it was obvious that she couldn’t be in Jamaica and the U.S. at the same time, making calls in both places. The fraudsters made so many calls in such a small window of time, which also didn’t fit my mom’s usage pattern. The fraud departments will generally work with you if it’s obvious, and generally with fraudsters, it is.