NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Nearly half of all Americans do not have a landline at home, but use a cell phone number as their primary phone number.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 47.4 percent of Americans only have a cell phone.
That leads people like Lori Coverdale to use her cell number for a point of contact on all types of forms and applications.
“I use it with all of my credit card stuff, I use it for work, tanning salons and nails too,” she said.
All of that information can be shared by the business or website you give it to with your permission. That permission is often given when you click “agree to the terms and conditions” on various online retail locations and social media.
“I think what most people don’t recognize about all your personal information, but especially your cell phone, is there is no law protecting them in the same way they are protecting your social security number,” privacy attorney Alex Little with Bone McAllester Norton said. “There are ways the government has set up around social security numbers because they are used to track people.”
He continued, “Not only are they sharing your information with others, and you have no idea they are doing it, they are getting paid.”
According to internet marking company WebpageFX, data brokering is a $200 billion industry.
Your purchased information can be sold to other retailers who will offer you similar products to ones you bought in the past or companion items.
Grocery stores can use your phone number to track what types of items you buy and then offer digital coupons.
“You have no way of knowing who has your cell phone number and what they are using it for,” Little said. “Once you used it in a commercial transaction and you put your number in, they may tell you it’s just for shipping, but in that long box of things you click through it has a provision that allows them to sale that information.”
He continued, “It can’t happen with social security numbers, but it can happen and does happen with cell phone numbers.”
Once your phone number and data are sold, they are collected. People can use your number to connect you to everything from your social security number to your neighbors.
News 2 reached out to Shelia Wysocki, a Brentwood-based private investigator who works in both Tennessee and Texas. She specializes in cold cases.
News 2 reporter Joseph Pleasant provided Wysocki with his personal cell phone number. It didn’t take her long to have a thick stack of information.
“I went on the internet and the first thing I did was pull your phone number off of there,” she said. “There is your social security number. It also gives things like your driver license and your voting record.”
She continued, “It not only shows your address but it shows what it looked like.”
Wysocki was also able to pull up each car Pleasant owned currently and previously. She was also able to find information about family, friends, associates and even neighbors.
“Here is a diagram of all the people connected to you in some way,” she said. “This is a list of your current neighbors and their phone numbers.”
Wysocki also found information about email addresses.
“You need to decide what you want out there,” she said. “Think about it. You tag where you eat and then I know where you like to eat, I know what kind of car you drive and I know who your neighbors are.”
She continued, “All I have to do is pick up the phone and call your neighbor, if I want information about your habits.”
All the information she found was on the internet and tied to Pleasant’s cell phone number.
There are ways to avoid using your cell number on forms, even if it is your primary phone number.
One way is to download the free app Sideline. It allows you to have a second phone number assigned to your cell. You can also use Hushed in the same way or use Google Voice to create a separate phone number for you to use online.
“One warning about that is Google is also collecting information about you and sharing it,” Wysocki explained. “I would tell you not to include your phone number on your Facebook page.”
A number of online services and social media sites will ask you to connect your phone number to your account.
“Don’t do it,” Wysocki said. “Let’s say you shop at Kohl’s so it can send you specials now they have your phone number and shopping preferences. Everything you do that connects to your phone number is just as personal as with your social security number.”
Fidashus Brodie told News 2 she never considered her phone number to be that specific to her personal life. The thought locking her phone with a passcode was enough to secure her personal information.
“To consider my privacy could really be invaded, it is kind of scary,” she said. “It is actually pretty scary when you think about it I use my phone number a lot.”
For more information on ways to protect your identity, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website.