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Scammers Hijacking Cellphone Accounts, Racking Up Big Bills In Victim's Name

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Scammers are at it again.

This time, hijacking people's cellphone accounts, leaving your phone with no service while they get new phones on your dime.

"I was on the phone, and suddenly my phone cut out," said Lorrie Cranor, of Squirrel Hill.

Then, she learned her husband's phone also quit working.

"So, I called my phone carrier and said: 'What's going on here?'" said Cranor. "I said my two phones have stopped working, and they said, "Oh, your two new iPhones?' And I said, 'No, no, my two old Android phones.'"

She was told to go to a store to straighten it out.

"The person there said somebody has hijacked your account," said Cranor.

Eventually, she learned someone with a fake ID with Cranor's name on it, but the thief's photo, went to a store in Ohio and asked for an upgrade. They walked out with two new iPhones assigned to Cranor's number and charged to her account.

"I was really angry," said Cranor. "What do you mean someone has hijacked my account?"

Cranor is a professor in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, and at the time this happened, was the chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission, which tracks scam complaints.

She learned she's far from alone in being a phone account hijacking victim.

However, the Identity Theft Resource Center says it's more common for phone accounts to be hacked online.

"Online account take overs are much more common, and quite frankly, much easier for the thieves to do," said Eva Velasquez, president of the Identity Theft Resource Center.

One way to guard against that is to have a strong password, according to Velasquez.

But that's not what happened with Cranor, and to try to avoid what happened to her: "You should set up an extra PIN or password on your phone account," said Cranor. "And it depends which phone carrier you have as to how to do it, but all of the major carriers have a way that you can do that."

In theory, you'd need to provide that PIN before any changes to your account would be made.

In Cranor's case, the thief somehow had her name, and apparently, also knew her cell phone number.

She thinks that may have happened during a security breach with a company or organization that had her information.

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