Modern technology is amazing. For example, thanks to the wonders of Find My iPhone — an application which allows you to use another device to locate a phone on a map — I was able to watch my stolen iPhone travel northward until the signal stopped deep in the heart of Washington, D.C. I haven't heard from it since, so I don't think the person who has my phone was just taking it for a day trip to the Smithsonian.
According to Consumer Reports, 3.1 million smartphones were stolen in 2013, which was nearly a 100 percent increase from 2012's number. Another 1.4 million were lost.
We call them phones, but they are really pocket-sized computers. These devices are bought primarily for texting, surfing, music, and apps. We use them as phones less than 30 percent of the time, according to a study by Experian. (Android users spend just 28 percent of their time actually talking on their phone; for iPhone users, that figure is 22 percent.)
Holding all that capability in the palm of your hand isn't cheap. You have a monthly bill that, according to J.D. Power, averages $73. Recent data from the Wall Street Journal and ABI Research says that the average cost of an Android device is $254 while Apple averages $687 for each iPhone it sells. (By the way, that higher price is a big reason why Apple's last quarterly profits were the biggest for a publicly traded company … ever).
Add to those costs the potential consequences of someone gaining access to your personal and financial nitty-gritty (not to mention your mildly embarrassing selfies), and the cost of losing and replacing your smartphone can grow into the hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars. The incentive to protect your smartphone investment rises exponentially when you consider how identity theft could affect your finances. Here are 10 ways you can limit the chance that such a fate will befall you.
Preventing mobile phone (and identity) theft
1. Lock it now. Add a passcode so no one can access your info or jack up your service bill with excessive texting, calling, or surfing.
2. Put identifying information on the outside of the phone. The home screen on my phone is a picture of our hamster, Fluffy, next to a speech bubble with my email address. I also have a little sticker on the back in case the phone runs out of power. Tip: Don't list your cell phone number as the method for contacting you.
3. Download an anti-theft app. There are loads of them, including some that allow you to lock your phone remotely and take pictures (hopefully of the thief). But you had better act quickly; these apps only work if the phone still has power and is turned on. Many of these apps, like Find My iPhone, allow you to remotely tell your phone to emit a noise so you can hear it even if it is on mute. That said, I activated the “ping” on my iPhone, and I wonder if that's how the thief found it. When I first checked Find My iPhone on our home computer, it looked like the phone might still be in the store; maybe I dropped it or left it on a shelf. So I returned to the store and did the ping thing. I didn't hear it, but it wasn't too long afterward that the phone hit the road.
4. Consider whether you need your phone with you. According to the Pew Internet Project, 29 percent of cell owners say their phone is “something they can't imagine living without.” But there is also evidence that, if you go a day without your phone, you won't die. Keep that in mind before you go places that increase the likelihood that you'll break or lose your phone — e.g., the beach, a concert, a funeral or job interview in an unfamiliar area. You won't be trapped in a phone-less wasteland; odds are folks around you would probably be willing to lend their phone for a quick call if it is truly necessary. Or consider paying $10 to $20 for a prepaid phone if you need to be accessible while doing something that could put your smartphone at risk. The same goes for your kids when they leave the house to run, jump, tackle, sled, dance, or crash at a friend's house.
5. Tie your phone to yourself. Ever seen those leather wallets that are attached to their owner's belt via chain? I don't know if such a product exists for phones, but it should; if you are handy enough, you could actually make one yourself. Maybe keep it in your tie. (Hey, I just invented something! I work next to the U.S. Patent Office, and I'm running over there in five minutes.) Anyway, it's something to consider if you often misplace your phone, especially in public places.
6. Disguise your phone. You can buy or make cases that make your smartphone look like a small book, an old calculator, a cracked older-model phone, or a cassette tape. (Okay, maybe the cassette tape would actually draw more attention!) But the point is that concealing your phone's true identity might reduce the chances that it will be taken and could enhance the possibility of its being returned if it gets lost.
7. Get insurance … maybe. Most phone insurance policies just cover damage, though some will replace your phone if it is lost or stolen. Comprehensive coverage will cost approximately $10 a month, and you will pay a deductible of around $100 to get a phone repaired or replaced. For lower-cost phones, it may not be worth it. For the latest and greatest big-ticket phones, it is worth considering.
8. Once it's gone, take quick action to protect yourself. Tell your wireless carrier to suspend or block service, which will prevent others from using it, at least temporarily. You can reactivate the service when you find the phone. If you know it is lost, you can wipe it of all your data if it is still turned on. (Just know that if you wipe all your data off the phone, then locator apps will no longer work.) Also, you should change the passwords to your email accounts, financial apps, shopping sites, and anything else that has sensitive data as quickly as possible.
9. Tell the police. Don't expect them to launch a full-scale investigation or a high-speed chase involving a car that, according to your locator app, may contain your phone. But if the phone is found and you have reported it to the police, it might speed up the process of returning the phone to you. Plus, it is good for them to have accurate statistics so they can tell whether phone theft is becoming more frequent for some reason. In addition, you may need to file a police report if you are making an insurance claim.
Speaking of insurance, your auto insurance probably won't cover the loss of your smartphone even if it is stolen from your car. But if you are concerned about identity theft, you can find insurance that covers that specifically.
10. Monitor your credit. WisePiggy.com (a sister site to Get Rich Slowly) also advises that you should notify your bank's fraud department and monitor your credit if you are concerned about identity theft or your accounts being compromised because you lost your phone or it was stolen. Another good way to protect yourself is to notify the fraud departments of the three major credit bureaus directly:
- Equifax: To order your credit report, call: (800) 685-1111.
(To request an initial 90-day fraud alert or active duty alert, call (888) 766-0008 or visit https://www.alerts.equifax.com/AutoFraud_Online/jsp/fraudAlert.jsp)
- Experian: To order your credit report, call: (888) 397-3742.
(To add a fraud alert message to your credit report, call (888) 397-3742 or visit https://www.experian.com/fraud/center.html)
- TransUnion: To order your credit report, call: (800) 916-8800.
(To place a fraud alert on your credit report at TransUnion, call (800) 680-7289 or visit http://www.tuc.com/personal-credit/credit-disputes/fraud-alerts.page?)
A lost or stolen smartphone is more than an inconvenience these days. Unfortunately, it can also mean an unexpected expense and exposure to identity theft. But I'm not the most techno-savvy fellow, so I'm sure many of you have other suggestions, including app recommendations. Let us hear 'em in the comments section below!
How do you prevent mobile phone theft? Have you experienced a lost or stolen smartphone? What did it cost to replace it, and was your identity stolen as a result?
Author: Robert Brokamp
As a former financial advisor and English teacher, it was inevitable that Robert Brokamp would one day write about the management of money. His musings on retirement, investments, budgeting, and whoopee cushions can be found on Fool.com and in various other publications, including GetRichSlowly.org and Newsweek. He was a contributor to The Motley Fool's Money After 40 and Million Dollar Portfolio, the co-author of The Motley Fool Personal Finance Workbook, the author of The Motley Fool's Guide to Paying for School, and is the editor of the Motley Fool Rule Your Retirement newsletter service.
Robert, who is a Certified Financial Planner, wishes to one day definitively answer the question, “Why do we make bad decisions with our money when we know better?” He lives in a glorified tree house in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife and four children, and is obsessed with Christmas music.