Phone hacking is much easier than you think

British actor Hugh Grant outside the Houses of Parliament in London, where a debate was being held into the allegations of phone hacking by journalists on July 6, 2011. Grant has been an outspoken critic of the practice.
AP Photo/Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The targets of the U.K. hacking scandal included British royals, commoners and screen stars like Hugh Grant.

However, CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports that it turns out that hacking into voice mail in the United States is pretty easy, depending on your phone carrier. Don't think hacking is just the scourge of the celebrated and sensational on the other side of the Atlantic.

L.A. screenwriter Rich Keith said his ex-girlfriend hacked his phone.

"She would know things that were only on my voice mail and sometimes she would know them before I knew them," Keith says.

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Christopher Soghoian, a cybersecurity researcher, says Keith may have been lucky to know who did the hacking.

"This is a crime that does not leave a trail of evidence," Soghoian says.

Soghoian says hacking is hard to trace, but easy to pull off, especially with providers AT&T and Sprint, which together serve almost 148 million customers. Unlike other providers, they don't require individual pin numbers to access voice mail.

In fact, Soghoian says it's easy as one - two - three: Just go to any of a number of web sites, punch in your phone number, the number of the phone you want to hack, then press go.

As demonstration, Soghoian hacked his own phone in just three minutes.

When asked for interviews, AT&T and Sprint issued statements instead. AT&T says it takes security "very seriously," and strongly urges customers to set up voice mail passwords. Sprint says if customers don't use passwords, "then we make it clear their account could be vulnerable."

"They've weighed the pros and cons and they decided usability outweighs security," Soghoian says.

After he was hacked, Rich Keith dropped AT&T for Sprint. It was perhaps a mistake he says, because he never saw the small print and never set up a password.

"I went from one bad carrier to the next. Although I get 4-G now. I can be hacked at blazing speed. Amazing!" Keith jokes.

Both Sprint and AT&T insist it is not easy to hack their phones from outside numbers. They say they allow their customers easy access, or they can punch in a password. It's a customers choice.