Sometimes it’s not a cyber-attack

It’s good to know that at least my family listens to my constant Internet safety lectures.  I wish more business leaders would do more than talk about taking security seriously.  I am under constant cyber-attack.  Every single day, more than 100 phishing emails hit my inbox.  Some are clever.  One cussed me out for sending a bogus invoice, conveniently attached to the message.  Another cussed me out for not paying an invoice, also attached.  Many claim to come from UPS or USPS or Amazon with news that the package I was expecting had a delivery problem.  Open the attachment for details.  My “Bullseye Breach” book website regularly comes under attack, most recently from a Russian IP Address.  Since “Bullseye Breach” is a book about how Russians steal forty million customer credit cards from a large retailer named Bullseye Stores, I guess the only surprise is that it took the Russians so long to attack it.

So when my daughter came to me with strange cell phone behavior, I knew it had to be another attack.

She was trading text messages with another mom to set up a play-date for my grandson.  The other mom offered to have my grandson over to her house to play with her son, and my daughter offered to stay and help.  Boys can be rambunctious when they get together.  This was one of my daughter’s messages, quoting with permission:

“Sounds good.  I am cool with staying and hanging out if you want.  I just don’t want you to feel like overwhelmed or anything.”

The other mom responded and they continued their text conversation.  I still don’t see the appeal of text messages as a primary form of communication.  Those teeny tiny keys and auto-correct drive me nuts.  If we’re both tapping little buttons on a phone, why not just talk to each other?  Maybe it’s a generational thing.

In the middle of her conversation with the other mom, two identical text messages from two different unknown local phone numbers came in.  The messages were, “who dis?” followed by forwards of my daughter’s messages to the other mom.

Shocked and afraid, my daughter asked me to help figure out how somebody invaded her phone.  Why was somebody stalking her from two different phone numbers and taunting her with her own text messages?  How did some lowlife intercept her text messages and play them back for her?  What did they want?

I was curious myself.

Looking over the conversations, the texters knew my daughter’s name and the date and time she planned to meet the other mom.  But we knew nothing about the texters.  Time to put on my tough guy dad hat.  I texted one of the numbers with “who are you and what do you want?” and was about to try to identify the other number and call the Police, when her phone rang from the first number. My daughter looked at me and handed me the phone.

“Hello,” I said in the strongest dad voice I could muster.  (It’s not the weapons you bring to the fight that count, it’s what the other guy thinks you bring to the fight that counts.)

To my surprise, the caller was a woman and she was just as mystified as my daughter.  She said she received a text message about staying and hanging out from this number, but had no idea what that meant or what was going on.  She knew my daughter’s name because my daughter used it in another message in the conversation thread.  The mystery was, how did this unrelated third party end up with a copy of part of my daughter’s half of a conversation with the other mom?

Curious, we called the other number.  That was also a woman, but she thought my daughter was a guy sending inappropriate advances.  What does “hang out” really mean anyway?  We had a long talk and cleared it up.

Apparently, my daughter’s cell carrier, T-Mobile, had a text message routing problem and sent copies of text messages to unintended phone numbers that night.  Imagine receiving a text message about hanging out and don’t feel overwhelmed with no other context from a strange phone number.  But this time, there was no cyber-attack, no stalkers, no perverts.  Just a T-Mobile tech glitch with suspicion layered on top.

Lessons?  Yup, a few.

  • It’s not always a cyber-attack or an evil cyber-stalker.  Sometimes it’s a tech glitch.
  • If you want to share intimate messages with somebody, best to do it by voice or face to face.  Text messages can be mis-routed.  I saw it first-hand.
  • And “who dis” must be a common text greeting.  I need to learn a new language.

(Originally published on my Infrasupport website, March 17, 2016.  I backdated here to match the original posting date.)