Q: OK, I’m sufficiently freaked out about having my cell phone’s voicemail hacked, so what do I need to do to lock it down?
A: The cell phone hacking scandal in Britain has certainly raised awareness around the world for one of the least secure technologies that we use every day: voicemail.
Making it easy to check our messages while on the go has created a huge opportunity for any malcontents that might want to invade your privacy.
The low-tech way to avoid being hacked is to disable voicemail altogether, but that’s not practical for most of us, so here are some other things to consider.
The first oversight by many is not creating a secure password when they first get setup on a cellular account.
Most cell phone voice mail systems have a default password like 111111 and prompt the user to change it the first time they access the account. If you don’t do it, you are a sitting duck because that’s the first thing that the hackers will try.
When you do reset the password, don’t use obvious numbers like your birthday, street numbers, last four of your Social Security number or anything that can be easily looked up about you on sites like http://DirtSearch.org or from your social media profiles (and remember, longer passwords are always better).
The exact steps for creating or changing the password on your cell phone voicemail varies by carrier and device, so be sure to take the time to learn how it’s done on your network and/or handset.
AT&T users can get online password reset instructions here: http://goo.gl/wsN1C
If you have an iPhone on the AT&T network, you can reset the Visual Voicemail or Standard Voicemail password right from the handset: http://goo.gl/bI9sn
Verizon users can get password reset instructions for using a computer online or from the handset here: http://goo.gl/OjU4g
T-Mobile customers can actually turn off password security altogether (which is insane), so here’s how to turn it back on or change the password: http://goo.gl/CV5Oq
While it’s entirely possible that you might become a target of someone who goes after your voicemail, the odds are pretty slim unless you’re a fairly high-profile person. The more likely scenario for having your voicemail messages accessed by an unauthorized person is from them simply picking up your phone and going to the voicemail that is generally one button away.
If you have a smartphone, for your convenience, your carrier has made it possible for you to bypass the password when checking your voicemail if they see that you are calling from your phone.
Here’s the huge security hole you can fill today: activate a startup passcode on your device. Hardly anyone I meet has this activated, which means that anyone can pick up your phone and access everything on it; email, voicemail, contacts, online accounts, the works. You need to take the approach that at some point you are going to lose your phone (whether it gets misplaced or stolen) and plan accordingly.
If you don’t have a device password activated, a thief can assume your persona in a matter of minutes. They could ask your bank to email you a password reset message, for example, and they’ll have everything they need in their hand to start banking using your account.
Even if you do have a device password on your smartphone, if it’s ever lost or stolen, make sure you go online and change the passwords for your email, voicemail or any other accounts that you can get to without having to enter a password — ASAP!
• Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the “Computer Corner” radio show, noon Saturdays on KTAR 92.3 FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org