Smartphone, where are you?

The iPhone 5s "Touch ID" allows you to unlock your smartphone with your fingerprint.
The iPhone 5s "Touch ID" allows you to unlock your smartphone with your fingerprint.
Posted: June 27, 2014

IT'S A WICKED world. Do you know where your cellphone is? What precautions have you taken to guard against its loss?

One out of three thefts today involves a cellphone, testified data trackers at last week's Federal Communications Commission workshop on mobile phone security in Washington, D.C.

And a recent Consumer Reports survey found one out of five people who bought phone insurance later put in a claim because the mobile had been stolen, lost or broken.

Stolen mobiles cost American victims an estimated $2.5 billion per year in replacement fees. The bill actually rises to $30 billion annually when factoring in the cost of lost personal and financial data and identity theft.

That's because smartphones are constantly collecting information about you - your location, your friends, email addresses, personal habits - even your bank accounts.

And smartphone apps are increasingly being used to remotely unlock the front door, open a garage door, turn on the lights. Welcome home . . . stranger!

In truth, the latter usually involve a password preamble. But some people make their password foolishly simple to guess. And an unsecured contacts list on your stolen phone can spark just as much mischief, as thieves shoot text messages to your friends looking for money or information.

ONE SOLUTION: The Smart Theft Prevention Act proposed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., might help. It proposes the installation of a kill switch on every mobile phone. "We're not going to get to the end of the incentives to steal unless the thieves know they're basically taking a brick," she said.

But there is "no silver bullet solution," countered Samir Gupte, senior product manager of Lookout Mobile, whose technology to help users locate and lock their phones is preloaded on Androids sold through AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. Gupte argued that a "multilayered approach" is needed for phone security.

FIRST-HAND HELL: Gizmo Guy was terribly agitated last week after his iPhone 5 slithered out of a pants pocket in a cab. Apple's "Find My iPhone" tracking app located the phone, then mapped it (on a computer screen) traveling up and down I-95 before the signal was lost. Either the phone had run out of juice or it had been turned off to dismiss the loud ringing cues and "please call me" message the phone was emitting on my command.

Fortunately, Gizmo Guy had password protection to safeguard the phone's contents, though that probably wouldn't have stopped a serious phone cracker or exporter to a foreign land.

I got the phone back, but by then I'd already replaced it with a new iPhone 5s equipped with an even more secure (though not always correctly functioning) "Touch ID" fingerprint reader to unlock it.

BEST PRACTICES: Consumer Reports offers several other suggestions for securing your phone and maybe getting it back if it's lost or stolen.

The longer the pass code you put on the phone, the better; a combination of letters, numbers and symbols is best.

File-scrambling encryption is automatic on pass-code-enabled iPhones (3GS and later). On phones running Android 4.0 or later, an encryption option is enabled via Settings/Security/Encrypt, but be forewarned: The process slows every start-up of the phone and can only be shut off by a factory reset that "cleans" the phone.

Google's variation on Find My iPhone (Device Manager) is preinstalled on some Android phones and accessible to all at google.com/android/devicemanager.


Blog: philly.com/GizmoGuy

Online: ph.ly/Tech

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