Hijacked cellphone upends woman’s life

Four hijacked cellphones and thousands of dollars lost. That’s just a glimpse at the fallout from a digital attack on a Muskego woman.

The attack on Gina Meller’s cellphone upended her life. Her hacker stole Gina’s money, opened credit cards in her name and looted payments to her small business.

“My phone is really my lifeline,” Meller told Contact 6. “Nobody could give me a definitive answer as to what happened or why it happened.”

Back in May, Gina’s cellphone stopped working. When she called Spectrum to ask why, a representative said Gina had switched her service to another carrier.

“I said, “no, I actually just started with Spectrum about a month ago, so I am not switching phone companies,” Meller recalls saying.

It’s a hacking technique called “porting.” The hacker used personal information found on Meller’s phone to transfer her number from her to a new service. The hacker then had full control over her device.

“I had no control over my own accounts,” said Meller. “I was in pure panic for a good solid three weeks.”

Meller tried switching her password protections to her husband’s cellphone. The hacker ported that, too. It happened again with her daughter’s phone and a colleague’s phone.

Gina said fraud experts don’t definitively know how her phone was hacked. They do have theories, however, starting with Gina’s travels before her phone was ported. Shortly before the hack, Gina logged onto public Wi-Fi at airports in Milwaukee and Boston.

“They explained to me that some of the most unsafe WI-FIs to log into are airports, train stations and cruises,” said Meller.

In these locations, hackers can cast a wide net around a high number of potential victims.

Khaled Sabha is a senior lecturer at the UW-Milwaukee School of Information Studies, where he teaches a course on ethical hacking.

“We want to look for any vulnerabilities in a system and patch these vulnerabilities before the bad guy comes and exploits them,” Sabha explained. “Our objective is not to scare people but to make sure that people are aware.”

Sabha says it’s not advisable to use public Wi-Fi to log into a private account. If you must use public Wi-Fi, he recommends using Wi-Fi that’s locked and requires a password. While online, he says you should avoid banking or entering your credit card information.

Sabha also advises double-checking the network name, as hackers can create a fake network known as an ‘evil twin’ under a slightly different name. While using public Wi-Fi, he says to only visit secure websites that use ‘https’ in the address bar. While traveling, disable the automatic Wi-Fi connection on your phone.

At OnTech Systems in Menomonee Falls, Jared Olson helps prevent businesses from attacks. He recommends downloading a VPN from your phone’s app store to encrypt your information.

“So that if [a hacker] looks at that data they’re not able to figure out exactly what they’re getting,” Olson explained.

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Sabha says not all VPNs are created equal. Some are more secure than others, or faster. He recommends NordVPN, Surfshark, ExpressVPN or PrivateVPN.

Wi-Fi service at Mitchell International Airport is provided by Boingo Wireless. A Boingo marketing representative told Contact 6, in part:

“As you know, people expect connectivity that is fast, seamless and secure wherever they go. To safeguard privacy and data, individuals should always follow best practices while using their mobile phones on any network – whether they’re at home, at the office , shopping or traveling…

With regard to Boingo, we are a leading provider or airport connectivity… Boingo networks include a layered security architecture that safeguards against systemic network breaches. Our network operations team monitors our networks 24/7 to guard against network issues and we also encrypt critical systems. But, with all these safeguards protecting the network itself, it is still important for individuals to take a proactive approach and follow best practices while using their mobile phones.”

Contact 6 emailed the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport) regarding its airport and was told:

“Massport has no knowledge of the specifics of this occurrence. We do offer free Wi-Fi at Boston Logan International Airport for the convenience of our passengers, similar to other airports, hotels, and restaurants. Any risk is disclosed in the terms and conditions the user accepts as they log on.”

Meller was able to claim her phones and accounts.

“My biggest fear is: can it happen again tomorrow?” said Meller.

Gina says there were red flags that her phone had been hacked. One day prior to losing control of her device, she got a text from a name she didn’t recognize. She responded to the text initially, then stopped. It may have been a phishing attempt.

“Between answering that text and logging onto the public Wi-Fi, it seems that I may have opened myself up to fraud,” said Meller.

Meller also got an alert to her phone that someone had tried to access her business accounting app. Meller thought her accountant may have logged on.

Greenfield Police tell Contact 6 it’s an open investigation.


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