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SMS Verification: What is it, who uses it, and is it safe?

August 17, 2023

Telesign Team
A woman next to a smartphone.

If you romanticized the days of internet past, one of the things you might reminisce about would be login processes. It used to be that the only steps required to securely access an account were a username and password.

My, how things have changed.

Today, the digital experience can feel like the Wild West, with fraudsters everywhere, doing everything in their power to find ways into secure accounts.

Username and passwords that used to shut them down? Quickly becoming a thing of the past.

The future is now, and it involves layering security with things like SMS verification. This article breaks down SMS verification, including how it works, who uses it, pros and cons, and more.

What is SMS?

SMS stands for Short Messaging Service, and it is a type of text messaging that occurs on most smartphones and mobile devices. The length of SMS messages is limited to 160 characters.

What is SMS verification?

SMS verification establishes the identity of a user through the use of a verification code sent to a smartphone. SMS verification adds a layer of security to a login process, typically after a user has input their login details. This extra step of security allows businesses greater control over who accesses their platforms.

Banks, for example, might require SMS verification to use their app or website, making it harder for someone to access another person’s account by stealing their password.

Is SMS secure?

How secure is SMS at its core? Unfortunately, the reality is that SMS is a huge target for cybercriminals. When a person sends a text message to someone else, there is a chance that prying eyes could intrude. This is because SMS messages are not end-to-end encrypted.

When something is encrypted end-to-end, the only parties able to read the messages are the sender and receiver. SMS messages are able to be read by third parties, including your wireless carrier. Though this is unlikely to happen, and could cross legal lines depending on the location, it is technically possible.

A bigger worry, of course, would be if a cybercriminal were to read your messages. As a standard, it makes sense to configure your important accounts with MFA (multi-factor authentication), so in the rare case a hacker gains access to your SMS messages, they won’t be able to penetrate the other layers of your account successfully.

How SMS verification works

Adding multi-layer security to a sign-up process is relatively straightforward. Here’s how it works:

  • First, during a new account sign-up process, the user is asked to give their mobile phone number.
  • The attributes of the phone number is immediately tested and confirmed with a code the user inputs into the designated registration field.
  • Upon future login attempts, after entering a username and password, the user will be sent a temporary code to their smartphone.
  • Finally, the user enters the code into the login field and gains access to their account, confirming their identity.

Who uses SMS verification?

A wide variety of companies use SMS verification as their main source of account security. You’ve probably been prompted to enter a phone number when signing up for a social media account or online business website or app, so that a bad actor doesn’t infiltrate your profile.

As banks now encourage digital deposits and transfers, they usually require SMS verification during the sign-in process.

Though there are some exceptions, it has become standard for many platforms to require that users go through an SMS verification process. Sometimes they opt for a different form of verification, one that sends a OTP (one-time passcode) through a third-party app. Whether this is safer or not varies, as each platform creates their own level of security.

Finally, note that just because SMS verification is used as a standard by many businesses, that doesn’t mean it’s the best or only option. However, due to the fact that so many people now have a smartphone, the convenience factor of this option comes into play.

Why SMS verification is so important

In the digital age, every account is protected at the very least by something like a password. A person logging in to their account would have to enter their username and password to gain access.

At first, this mechanism was successful, for the most part, in keeping bad actors at bay. Eventually, cybercriminals began using the power of technology to uncover passwords and break into accounts. As a result, password requirements were established to make passwords more secure. Users were instructed to do certain things when constructing a password, like add special characters (!@$%^&&*, etc.), capitalize some letters, and make the password a certain length.

Again, this wasn’t enough. Brute force attacks made it so bad actors could eventually gain access to an account protected by these types of passwords.

What was needed was an extra layer of security. An OTP sent to an email was one way to give them that extra security. There is the concern that passwords are often reused, so if someone got hold of one password, they might also have access to their target’s email.

SMS verification doesn’t have this problem, so it’s widely preferred, especially considering smartphones are widely available to almost everyone these days.

Benefits of SMS verification

We know that SMS verification is effective, and we know what types of companies use it, but what are the main benefits they get from applying it? Here are the most common:

  • Prevents various types of fraud, including identity theft and account takeovers
  • Reduces the number of bots and fake users in any given digital ecosystem
  • Helps businesses confirm a person is who they say they are
  • Ensures sensitive information sent and received, such as messages and emails, is authenticated
  • Extremely low-cost service
  • Adds a layer of security on top of a username and password entry
  • Prevents potentially fraudulent financial transactions
  • Convenient, as many people already have smartphones, and are familiar with SMS verification processes

Potential downsides of SMS verification

Of course, SMS verification isn’t 100% impenetrable. Here are a few negatives to consider:

  • Doesn’t fully erase the potential for fraud. To counteract this, safety systems should be implemented alongside SMS verification.
  • Subject to the limitations of SMS message security. Without true end-to-end encryption, SMS will always have some risk for cybercriminals to see and exploit a user’s messages.
  • SIM swapping remains a problem. This is especially the case when a company relies solely on SMS verification for security.
  • Hardware and software don’t always mix. When you have a digital account protected in part by hardware, there’s a chance for a mix-up. For example, if a user misplaces their smartphone, they won’t be able to access their accounts. A recent study showed that 28% of smartphone owners have lost their phone before, with 5% saying their phone has been stolen.

To make the process more efficient and secure, an SMS verification API can be put into place.

Using an SMS verification API

Implementing an SMS verification API depends on your company’s specific requirements. To be sure you’re setting up a solution that best fits your needs, find a solution that offers a way to test out the process.

Be sure the provider you’re working with has a support team that is responsive and makes themselves fully ready to assist you with any questions you have.

When looking for an SMS verification API, you want a solution that goes above and beyond what you get from a basic verification process.

Look at the following factors in any potential provider:

  • Offers a fully scalable and global (if needed) verification solution
  • Provides a quick OTP delivery, even at high volumes
  • Prioritizes security for all messages sent

Telesign’s verification offering

When looking into the downsides and vulnerabilities of SMS verification, there will be some concern for businesses looking for high levels of security. This concern is warranted, but it can be mitigated by pairing SMS verification with a solution that ensures vulnerabilities are eradicated.

For example, if a SIM swap has previously affected a number, wouldn’t it be nice if you had a verification API that automatically flags it? That and more are what Telesign, the global leader in digital security, offers.

What else does Telesign’s SMS Verify solution provide? Here are some key features:

  • Toll fraud detection and prevention. Toll fraud is a communications fraud where cybercriminals pump up traffic to premium rate numbers. These attacks negatively impact companies financially, especially those with high call/message volumes. SMS Verify prevents this, avoiding massive unnecessary fees.
  • SIM swap recognition. SIM swap is one way bad actors can gain control of a phone number’s messages, giving them access to verification codes. Telesign alerts you to this type of threat, provides a level of risk, and allows you to choose whether to allow the SMS verification.
  • Consistently lower rates. Telesign’s verification API uses phone number cleansing to avoid dialing rules that would otherwise cause higher delivery rates.
  • Global verification possibilities. It’s important that your SMS verification abilities extend across the world, and Telesign ensures that by reaching 230+ countries.
  • Keep your customers undisturbed and happy. Not all customers want to be told about your latest product or service. When that’s the case, you’ll want an automated, fast system to handle their opt-out requests. Telesign’s verification API automatically notifies when a customer opts-out.

Telesign helps some of the world’s largest and most popular brands prevent digital fraud, through the use of modern, developer-friendly APIs.

Final thoughts on SMS verification

There is a thin line of security between your digital ecosystem and fraud. Sometimes, all that’s stopping fake accounts from ending up on your platforms is a username and password. This minimal barrier is bound to break, especially with so many fraudsters seeking to exploit every weakness.

SMS verification strengthens this thin line of security, making the theft of a password insufficient for a bad actor to gain access to your digital platform, as they would still need the user’s mobile device.

Committing to greater security is a big step in the right direction, and signals to your end-users that you are focused on keeping them safe. Yet, this only holds true if the verification service you use can perform a wide range of functions. Telesign’s SMS verification API stands alone as a modern solution that accounts for many potential security issues.

If you’re interested in implementing an SMS verification solution capable of scaling globally, chat with us today.