Texting Your Number Neighbor: Five Reasons Not to Do It

Fads have always been a thing, but they seem to come and go a lot faster in the age of Twitter and TikTok.  Consider the example of “number neighbors,” people with a phone number that’s just one number different from yours.  The concept first surfaced as far back as 2008, but didn’t really go viral until the summer of 2019. 

That’s when the idea of texting your number neighbor and posting a screenshot of the resulting exchange caught fire on Twitter, becoming popular enough to earn coverage from mainstream outlets like CNN and even the stodgy Wall Street Journal.  It peaked and subsided pretty quickly, but the idea has never gone away, and you may have considered it yourself (especially if you were bored in lockdown).  Here are five reasons to think twice before you send that text. 

1. It’s Kind of Rude

Let’s start with the simplest reason not to text your number neighbor: It’s a bit rude.  Admittedly, etiquette expert Emily Post didn’t live long enough to weigh in on this kind of thing, but if we’re being honest, most of us don’t particularly like it when a random stranger barges up to us and starts talking.  

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Some of us are perfectly fine with the idea of striking up conversations with strangers.  If that’s you, and a number neighbor texts you, that’s great: You can decide whether to participate or not.  Not everyone shares that happy-go-lucky attitude, though, and might be put off, resentful or genuinely alarmed by your text.

It’s more thoughtful, more respectful and just plain better manners to not go there. 

2. It Can Be Ill-Timed or Intrusive

One positive message you’ll often see circulating on social media is a reminder to be kind to the people you encounter, because you never know what’s going on in their lives.  That same logic applies to the number neighbor challenge: You don’t know what’s going on in that person’s life, and — while your intention may have been light-hearted fun — your message might arrive at a very bad time indeed. 

Imagine receiving a chatty text from a “number neighbor” while you’re searching for a lost child (or a dementia-stricken parent).  Or on your daughter’s phone, the week after she commits suicide.  Or while you’re waiting to see the oncologist about your recent cancer diagnosis.  Not to be a downer, but bad things happen every day. 

Your text, however innocent your motives, might make the day worse for someone who’s already dealing with a lot.  In fact, there’s a specific example that deserves to be mentioned separately. 

3. You Might Trigger Someone’s Jealous Partner

When you’re in love, one of life’s Really Big Questions is whether (and how) that person loves you back.  It’s a fundamental insecurity many of us are prone to, even in the context of a long-term relationship.  It’s not entirely groundless: Cheating is sadly widespread, and there are lots of common signs that might make you believe your partner is straying (pro tip: Dating profiles are a pretty big red flag). 

Unfortunately, in a lot of relationships, jealousy goes well beyond simple insecurity and into controlling, manipulative, and even abusive behavior.  The CDC estimates that about 40% of women and 10% of men experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime, and tens of millions experience psychological aggression. 

Now, picture the potential impact of your innocent text on somebody in a violently jealous relationship situation.  It’s an amusing plot device in a movie or sitcom, but in the real world, you could cause real harm. 

(If you yourself are in a violent home situation, or if you have reason to believe someone you know is in that situation, the National Domestic Violence Hotline offers discreet information and assistance.  Other organizations, such as the American College of Surgeons, offer lists of useful resources; but be careful to clear your browser history after visiting any such site.)

4. Your Number Neighbor Might Be Dangerous

A more immediate threat is that your number neighbor might represent a danger to you, personally.   This isn’t statistically likely, but — like being struck by lightning — it does happen, and it’s extremely unpleasant if you’re the one it happens to. 

You’ve almost certainly met a lot of people over the years who “gave you a bad vibe,” or outright scared the heck out of you.  It’s unlikely, but someone like that could be at the other end of your impulsive text.  By handing over your phone number to them, you can open yourself up to stalking, harassment, and potentially even violence. 

One Los Angeles woman learned that the hard way, when her number neighbor subjected her to a relentless barrage of threatening messages, including outright death threats.  When she blocked his number, he responded by calling repeatedly from a private number.  Ultimately, she was forced to go to the police, and to change her own phone number.

This is an extreme example, but even milder levels of harassment can be traumatizing or disturbing (unsolicited NSFW photos spring to mind). 

5. Your Number Neighbor Might Be a Criminal

If you needed another reason to not send that text, here it is: It leaves you potentially vulnerable to scammers, identity thieves, and other assorted criminals (they have phones, too, right?). 

Giving out your phone number to the wrong stranger can go badly for you in all kinds of ways, including (but definitely not limited to) the following: 

  • Potentially putting yourself into the path of a romance scammer or sexual predator, who gains your trust by engaging with you after the initial text. 
  • Your phone number is your username on many sites and apps, so giving it out provides scammers with the opportunity to match it up with a list of known-to-be-compromised passwords (i.e., “credential stuffing”) to hack your accounts. 
  • Once they have your number, scammers can “spoof” calls to make it look like they originate from your number.  That means they can target your friends, family and coworkers specifically.
  • Scammers can use your number as part of a “synthetic” identity, a less-known but lucrative form of identity theft.  It’s worth pointing out that if you receive a number neighbor text, that can also be a spoofed number originating with a scammer. 
  • Scammers can use your number to carry out a SIM swapping attack, in which they impersonate you and persuade your carrier to transfer your number to “your” new phone.  In a similar scam, criminals set up an account with a new carrier, which then sends a request to transfer the phone number from your existing account (this is called the “porting-out” scam).  In either case, if the attack is successful, the scammer can now sync the phone to capture all of your data and saved passwords, lock you out of your own accounts, and steal whatever personal information you access on or from your phone (which is usually a LOT). 

As Always, Use Your Judgment

This may sound alarmist, and to an extent it is.  The vast majority of Twitter users who jumped on the number neighbor bandwagon in 2019 reported positive experiences, and most of the people out there are perfectly ordinary. 

That said, the world contains plenty of the other kind of people as well.  Check the news any day, pretty much anywhere, if you need confirmation of that.  The old adage that “it’s better safe than sorry” certainly applies to the idea of texting random strangers. 

If you’ve already sent a text to your number neighbor, don’t lose sleep over it.  They may or may not be up for messaging with you, but nothing very bad will usually happen.  Just chalk it up to a learning experience!

Sources

Know Your Meme: Number Neighbor/Text Door Neighbor

CNN: People Are Texting Phone Numbers Identical to Their Own, With One Key Difference. Meet the ‘Number Neighbor’

Wall Street Journal: ‘Who is This?’ Friendly Texters Annoy Strangers With ‘Number Neighbor’ Messages

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Preventing Intimate Partner Violence

National Domestic Violence Hotline: Home

American College of Surgeons: Intimate Partner Violence Resources

NBC Los Angeles: Woman Shares Terrifying ‘Number Neighbor’ Story

Granite State Communications: The Downsides of Sharing Your Phone Number

Security National Bank: Could a Thief Steal Your Phone Number? Here’s How SIM Swap Scams Happen

US Federal Communications Commission: Port-Out Fraud Targets Your Private Accounts

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