Step 1: Use a strong screen lock
This is your first and strongest line of defense. Skip the easy 4-digit PIN and instead create a strong password that contains a string of at least 8 characters that include some combination of letters, numbers, and special characters that don't form recognizable words or phrases—especially those that could be associated with you. For instance, Fred1969 is a weak password, but F!ed9691 could be much harder to crack. While typing a nontrivial password may feel cumbersome at first, it should get much easier with practice.
The iPhone 5S's Touch ID fingerprint reader, built into its Home button, is designed to do away with this drudgery. We found it faster than typing a PIN. (Even with Touch ID enabled, you should still use a strong passcode.) We were able to go from a sleeping screen to the desktop in about a second. Password protection comes with another safeguard: After several unsuccessful tries to enter a passcode, typically 10, some phones will automatically erase all of your personal data. If your phone provides this option, activate it.
Step 2: Use a 'find my phone' app
The same GPS and network connections that help your phone find the best nearby restaurants and the fastest way home can help you find and protect that phone should it go missing. To take advantage of this, you need to install a special free app that we’ll describe below, which works together with a free service that you can use to locate or erase the phone once it’s gone.
For the app to be useful, the phone must be turned on and have a cellular or Wi-Fi connection. Location tracking (GPS) also must be enabled in order to find the phone on a map, but probably isn’t required to erase the phone’s contents. Since thieves will probably turn off the phone fairly quickly, yank out its SIM card, or put it in a room or box shielded from wireless connections, it’s imperative that as soon you learn that your phone is missing, you send it any commands you think appropriate.
- On an Android phone. To set up this app on a phone running Android 2.2 or later, find the Android Device Manager in Google Settings, which is typically an icon on your desktop with the letter "g" and a gear-like symbol next to it. If necessary, use the phone's search function to search for "Google Settings." To track down a missing phone, use a computer to access Android Device Manager in the browser's address bar.
- On an iPhone. Download and install Find My iPhone from the iTunes App Store, then sign in with your iTunes account. To track down a missing phone, use a computer to access Find My iPhone.
- On a Windows phone. Find the Find My Phone app in the main settings menu. To track down a missing phone, use a computer to go to Microsoft's account sign-in screen.
Apple took smart phone protection a step further on its iPhone models that run iOS 7, with a powerful feature that prevents anyone from using the phone—even after it's wiped clean—unless they type in your iTunes ID and Password. The feature, called Activation Lock, is built into iOS 7 and automatically enabled when you set up the Find My iPhone feature. Activation Lock has been available for only a few months, so it’s too soon to tell if it has had a noticeable impact on iPhone thefts.
As powerful as Activation Lock is, there’s evidence that it may be less than perfect. A security firm, SRLabs, recently demonstrated how a determined thief with the proper equipment can defeat Activation Lock in some cases.
Step 3: Attach a note
You may not love the idea of marring your phone’s great looks, but doing so may increase your chances of getting it back if it's found by an honest person. Tape a tiny note on the back of your phone with your e-mail address or a work number (You don't want to give a potential burglar your home number). In my informal tests, printing my e-mail address in a small font and taping it on with a small strip of shipping tape worked well on phones with smooth metal or plastic surfaces. On phones with rubbery or rough surfaces, neatly write that info, using a fine-point permanent marker, on a small strip of duct or electrical tape, which cling better to such surfaces. Choose a spot on the phone that's least likely to receive constant rubbing from your palm or fingers.
On Android phones, you can also type such a message in the Owner Info section of the Security submenu in Settings. But if you erase the contents of your phone, that message will disappear.
Phone carriers, phone makers, and operating systems typically offer free over-the-air backup for phone camera content, settings, and more. These options often appear when you set up the phone for the first time, though you can always activate them later. Selecting a carrier-neutral source, such as Apple's iCloud, Android's Google +, or Microsoft's OneDrive will make it easier to retrieve your precious memories should your next phone be from a different carrier.
Check this detailed price and feature information about each of these services and some competing cloud services.
Step 5: Record your phone's unique ID number
Smart phones have a unique serial number known as an IMEI (International Mobile Station Equipment Identity) or MEID (Mobile Equipment Identifier). Unlike other identifying information stored on the phone’s removable SIM card, these numbers are etched into its circuits and difficult to alter. Your cell carrier already has this 15-digit number on file, and may be able to use it to put the phone on a missing phone list. Some police departments ask for either of these numbers when you report a stolen phone, so that they'll be able to return it to you if it's recovered. You can typically find either number on the phone box or in your phone's settings menu. It is also often found printed on or under the phone’s battery.You can find your phone's IMEI by dialing *#06#. The number should pop up on your screen.
You'll find an IMEI number on all phones from GSM carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile, and so-called world phones from CDMA carriers such as Verizon and Sprint. Less-common nonworld phones from Verizon and Sprint have a different ID number called a mobile equipment identifier, or MEID. The MEID is comparable; you can find it the same way you find an IMEI.