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No, hackers can’t copy your contact list or steal banking details simply by phoning you – ignore widely shared claim

IN SHORT: A message dating as far back as 2012 is once again circulating on Facebook and WhatsApp, warning the public not to answer or call back numbers with certain country codes. It claims this is how hackers are able to get your personal information, but that’s not true.

“The Military Assistance Corps has released this information for your safety,” begins a post doing the rounds in May 2023 on Facebook in South Africa.

The post advises readers to forward the message to their families and friends “NOW”. 

It also says: “These guys only ring once and hang up. If you call back they can copy your contact list in 3sec and if you have bank or credit card details on your phone they can copy that too.” 

It then gives several country codes, short alphanumeric identification codes for countries, and tells readers to “not answer and do not call back”.

The long post advises readers to avoid pressing “#90 or #09” on their mobile phones because this is “a new trick that allows [hackers] to access your SIM card, make calls at your expense and brand you as a criminal”.

It then prompts readers, again, to “urgently forward” the message to “as many friends as possible to stop any intrusion!!!”.

Posts with the same text can be traced back to 2019. The messages were also circulating in 2020 here, here, here, here and here

But the claim is not only making its way around Facebook. It has also been sent to Africa Check on our South African WhatsApp line.

Much like other WhatsApp misinformation we have debunked, the message doesn’t offer any real evidence for the claims it is making. So is it true?


No evidence for the claim

Similar false claims warning people not to answer specific numbers have been doing the rounds since as early as 2012 across a number of countries.

We did some digging and found that there is no organisation or branch of an organisation called “the Military Assistance Corps”. 

We could also find no official statement anywhere warning people to not answer calls from the numbers listed in the claim.

It is also not true that pressing “#90 or #09” on mobile phones will allow hackers to access your SIM card. This has been debunked.

The Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency of the US federal government, explains that the scam of pressing “90#” buttons is only for landline telephones.

“You receive a call at your office from someone claiming to be a telephone company employee investigating technical problems with your line, or checking up on calls supposedly placed to other states or countries from your line. The caller asks you to aid the investigation by either dialling 90# or by transferring the call to an outside line before hanging up. By doing this, you may be enabling the caller to place calls that are billed to your office telephone number.”

This scam doesn’t work on cellphones – and doesn’t steal your banking details, even on a landline. 

‘It’s impossible to get hacked by simply answering a phone call’

Criminals cannot copy your contact list or steal bank and credit card details simply by phoning you.

“It’s impossible to get hacked by simply answering a phone call made through your network service provider,” says Avast Software, a multinational cybersecurity software company.

Other cybersecurity software companies, such as AVG and McAfee, also say you can’t be hacked by just answering a phone call, but rather by hacking techniques during the phone call, such as phishing.

Phishing is a tactic used to trick people into revealing personal information like bank account and ID numbers, often while online.

But there are some things smartphone users can do to reduce the chance of being hacked. These include creating a strong password for your phone, regularly clearing browser history and cache, and being careful of what you install.

What’s the point of messages like these?

Here are possible reasons why people might create and spread misinformation:

  • Money. For example, pushing traffic to false-news websites for advertising income. 
  • Gaining reach or followers through content that triggers an emotional response. 
  • Wanting to deceive or persuade with wrong information, sometimes with the intent of causing harm.
  • Wanting to influence public opinion. For example, by discrediting a political opponent.

To protect yourself against misinformation on WhatsApp, you can read our guide on five steps to fight fake news and false information.

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