How to prevent mobile phone theft


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?

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Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
Nick @ Millionaires Giving Money
5 years ago

Excellent idea about the anti theft apps, I never knew such a thing existed. I will definitely be downloading to protect my smartphone. Another precaution I take is to backup all my files and pictures on the Microsoft Cloud server just in case I lose the phone. Great post, thanks for sharing.

Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ
5 years ago

Some states now require smart phones to have a kill switch in the event they are stolen. (I think. My smart phone is a “beginner” smart phone and I use the internet on it maybe once every two months, so I haven’t really followed this.) I seem to remember recent news reports that iPhone thefts were down where they have such laws. However, if you just lost the thing and find it again, if you killed it, it’s dead.

ReaderInCA
ReaderInCA
5 years ago

If you google “iPhone Chain,” you’ll find several different options for tethering your phone to a chain. For example: http://geardiary.com/2012/04/01/the-z-connector-iphone-case-with-chain-review/

This is great for older phones with the older connector: https://www.behance.net/gallery/4086191/iPhoneChain

Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
Emily @ Simple Cheap Mom
5 years ago

I really like the ID on the outside idea. That way if the battery is dead when someone finds the phone, they can still contact you.

Also, I can attest. I’ve gone weeks (months maybe) without my phone and survived. It’s not as risky as it sounds!

lmoot
lmoot
5 years ago

Yep, this pretty much solidified my decision not to ever get a smartphone. I’ll stick to a camera and GPS (only 2 reasons why I’d get a smartphone). They’re a hassel, expensive, not as long lasting.

My flipper is 4 yrs old and going strong. And it fits in my pocket (I’ve even put it in my sock). And I get better reception since I don’t have an entire operating system attached to it.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
5 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

After a self-imposed economic downturn I canceled my cell plan and bought the cheapest pay-as-you-go flip phone I could find. It costs $2 a day if I use it and nothing if I don’t.
It changed the way I lived in the world. On the monthly plan, I fell prey to that peculiarly modern malady: calling people for no real reason. Now I find that I actually LIVE more of my life vs. narrating it for someone else’s benefit.
Some people need smartphones and constant connectivity. Some of us don’t.
http://donnafreedman.com/2013/10/05/living-in-the-quieter-spots-of-life/

lmoot
lmoot
5 years ago
Reply to  Donna Freedman

Oh geez tell me about it. 75% of cell phone convos I overhear are simply pleasantries, something you’d say to someone because they are there…not something worth making the physical effort to pick up a phone and call for. I am a fan of people-watching and I realize that for many people it’s a habit to pick up the phone the SECOND they get some downtime. I’ve started eating alone at my new job, because everyone sits around the table on their phones so it’s like I’m alone anyway. Not kidding, I came down from a jaunt up the stairs,… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
5 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

And a flip phone is small enough to carry in your front pocket, which cuts down tremendously on the chances of being pick-pocketed in the first place. I keep my keys and wallet in front as well, never once had anything stolen even in the most crowded of places.

Golfing Girl
Golfing Girl
5 years ago

OMG who is spending over $600 on a phone??? Am I the only one shocked by this? All of my phones have been in the free-$100 range. I lost my phone at a Walmart parking lot and thank goodness, the gentleman who found it answered when I called it and agreed to wait there till I could come back. I gave him $20 as a thank you. I know have mine locked at all times (mostly to keep my kids off, but also for security if lost).

Brad
Brad
5 years ago
Reply to  Golfing Girl

If you’re getting a “free” phone, is it on a 2 year contract? If so, you will probably have to pay the full (non-contract) price to replace it should it be lost or stolen. For a lot of smartphones this can be $500 or more, your specific provider can probably give you a price if you go to their website.

No Thanks
No Thanks
5 years ago

Adding onto #7, a couple insider tricks: Realize that your phone does not “cost” $200. When you go in to replace your phone after 2 years, the reason they only charge you $200 is because your carrier overcharges you so much for service, they’re willing to subsidize the additional $400+ the phone costs. If you break or lose your new phone, it will likely cost over $600 to replace. Use the full replacement cost in your personal calculation of whether insurance is worthwhile for you. Know the deductible for your specific phone. For new, top tier phones it can be… Read more »

Cindy
Cindy
5 years ago

Back when my sister was on my phone plan, someone broke into her car and stole her cell phone (which she’d not so smartly left there to charge). When I called T-Mobile to have it shut off, the lady helpfully offered me turn-by-turn directions to the house where the phone was showing it was located. When I declined, she got all huffy about why I wouldn’t want to just go and get the phone back! Oh, I don’t know… Maybe the fact that they broke into a car implies that they’re criminals, and I really don’t want to show up… Read more »

Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich
Chelsea @ Broke Girl Gets Rich
5 years ago

Disguising your phone is a great idea… or simply getting a phone that isn’t so fancy and targeted by thieves. If you can do without all the bells and whistles, you can still get a decent smartphone for a lower price tag – and it’s one people won’t care so much about stealing. I bought an unlocked Samsung S Duos 2 last year for approximately $150. It’s not fancy, but I can use all the apps I want/need and haven’t run into any problems. I don’t have insurance on it, but I do plan to have insurance on my more… Read more »

val
val
5 years ago

One of my precautions… I never access my banking or other accounts via my phone. I never enter my credit card number into my phone. I don’t use facebook via my phone. All those are vulnerable portals to my identity. I do those tasks on my home laptop on secure wifi. Don’t assume you have to enter your credit card into the phone just because the app requests it. Most businesses have a workaround. Google Play lets you set up your account via a desktop web browser. My subscription car service (car2go) allowed me a secure desktop account setup —… Read more »

Cyrel @ Austral Accountant
Cyrel @ Austral Accountant
5 years ago

I got Device Manager installed in my Android phone, which I accidentally activated while I was checking it online. I noticed that my phone was automatically locked. I panicked and so, I decided to remove my device in the Device Manager website, however, the Delete option meant that the phone is going to be restored to its factory setting. It was tedious to get all the apps previously installed in my phone but knowing that there’s an application that automatically responds to prevent anyone from getting access to your phone is impressive.

Helen
Helen
5 years ago

Great tips! One more to add: Pay attention when using your fancy phone on the street, in public transport or in public in general. A few weeks ago, my boss had his smartphone snatched off his hand in the subway, he was just casually browsing on the internet and was holding the phone with just one hand. Luckily he managed to run after the thief and got the phone back. Another friend of mine had her iPhone stolen on the street when she was Skyping while walking, someone just ran past and grabbed her phone. So be careful out there!

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