Gone are the days when cellular phone calls were your only option. Today, you can call and text your contacts using an internet connection—a method known as VoIP. But is VoIP really secure, or can it be exploited by malicious individuals? Just how safe is this calling option?
What Is VoIP?
VoIP (known less commonly as IP telephony) is an acronym for “Voice over Internet Protocol”. The name itself is pretty self-explanatory, as this technology uses the internet to connect two or more users for voice calls (as well as messaging).
A typical landline phone uses copper wiring to transmit data from one place to another. This requires a hardwire connection from the caller to the recipient. Making a call on your cell phone requires the use of cell towers, but VoIP requires neither of these methods. Rather, all that’s needed is a solid internet connection.
Unlike using social media calling (on Instagram or Messenger, for instance), VoIP can still be linked to your phone number but does not use cell service to connect you to your contacts. For instance, WhatsApp requires you to provide your phone number when you create your account and connects you to others via their phone numbers. This is often done to minimize cases of fraud.
Some VoIP platforms also provide you with a unique VoIP number. The signup process will likely differ depending on which service you choose.
Is VoIP Secure?
Making calls over the internet, especially for free, sounds like a great alternative to landline and cell communication.
But does the use of the internet expose people to hacks? In short, yes, your VoIP calls could be hacked. Any device connected to the internet is somewhat exposed to remote attacks.
However, legitimate VoIP services often come with a number of security features to keep you safe. These include:
- End-to-end encryption.
- Secure storage of texts and attachments.
- Built-in anti-spam, anti-malware, and anti-phishing measures.
- Adjustable data sharing settings.
- User authentication.
- Password-protected sensitive chats.
- Screenshot blocking.
Not all VoIP providers will have every one of these features, but a good provider will come with a fair few. WhatsApp, Google Voice, and Zoom employ some of these measures, though which are specifically used will range from service to service.
The main thing to look for in a VoIP service is encryption. Encryption ensures that your voice and text data is being scrambled into indecipherable code (known as ciphertext). When in this form, it is almost impossible for a cybercriminal to exploit.
How Is VoIP Hacked?
VoIP can often be hacked through unsecured connections and networks or unprotected accounts. Because Wi-Fi or cellular data is required to make VoIP calls and send VoIP texts, network vulnerabilities can be exploited by attackers to eavesdrop on your calls or steal sensitive data, such as your contact number or IP address.
VoIP can also be hacked through the theft of user credentials. If you’re using a VoIP service that requires you to sign in, a malicious actor may steal and use your login credentials, either to make calls using your account or to steal other sensitive data like payment details and contact information.
This can be done via social engineering, a malicious tactic through which a cybercriminal convinces you to share sensitive information, be it by impersonating a trusted entity or using threats. Phishing is a particularly popular social engineering tactic that affects millions of people every year.
In a typical phishing attack, a cybercriminal may email you claiming to be an employee of the VoIP service you use. In this message, you’ll likely be asked for some kind of sensitive information, such as your payment information or login credentials. You’ll then be provided a link—say, to one of your account pages—wherein you can provide the requested information. In reality, this is a malicious web page designed to look incredibly similar to the authentic web page being duped. Once you enter your information, the attacker will take it and use it to steal data or funds without your permission.
You may think such a request would be a dead giveaway, but phishing attackers use very convincing tactics to win over the victim, such as urgent language, time-sensitive requests, and malicious web pages that are almost identical to that which they are trying to copy.
Phishing attacks can target one individual but often come as large campaigns, in which thousands or even millions of people are targeted at once. It’s best to use anti-spam filters on your email apps to steer clear of mail that’s been identified as suspicious (though these filters aren’t fool-proof).
Your VoIP app could also be infected with malware if cybercriminals make use of a backdoor. Alternatively, you may unknowingly opt for a shady VoIP service with an app that lacks solid security features, or worse, has malware pre-installed.
Malicious apps are common, even on legitimate platforms like the Google Play Store. It’s crucial to make sure you’re not downloading a malicious VoIP app before hitting the “install” button.
How to Secure Your VoIP Data
One of the most important things you can do to keep yourself safe on VoIP services is to choose a legitimate, trusted, and thoroughly-reviewed provider. A cheap or free VoIP service may seem like a great option, but some free-of-charge providers come with hidden drawbacks, such as constant ad pop-ups, shoddy security features, and even malicious operators.
Additionally, it’s wise to use as many of your VoIP provider’s security features as possible. Some will be enforced for every user, but others, such as two-factor authentication or data syncing, are often optional.
You could also use a VPN while using VoIP. This encrypts your data and obscures your IP address, making it much harder for cybercriminals to target you. You can use a VPN for free, but note that free providers can come with hidden downsides, like poor encryption standards and shady privacy policies. If you want the best security possible, use a highly reputable provider, such as ExpressVPN, Surfshark, and CyberGhost.
VoIP Isn’t Impenetrable
Even if you’re using a top-tier VoIP service, you may still fall victim to hacking, so your sensitive data could be stolen. It’s important to stay aware of common cyber-scams and protect your VoIP account as much as possible to avoid such an outcome.