5 steps to protect your smart phone from theft or loss

Also learn what to do when your phone goes missing and when you get it back

Published: April 2014

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One day, someone you don't know may end up holding your phone. Maybe you'll forget it in a taxi, or it will be snatched out of your hand—smart phone thefts are on the rise. And you're going to be concerned because that phone holds a pocket-sized summary of your digital life. It has photos of the places you've been and people in your life. It also has a record of what you posted on Facebook or bought from Amazon, where you bank, and which restaurants you like.

Here's how you can keep strangers from accessing your personal information, safely back up and retrieve the photos and videos you've stored in the device, and, with a little luck, increase your chances of recovering your phone.  

Before your smart phone is gone

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.

Step 4: Back up your photos and videos

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.

After the phone is gone

Whatever your goal, the sooner you act, the better your chances of achieving it. Here are key actions to take.

Step 1: Seek and destroy

As soon as possible, log on to your "find my phone" service from a secure device. Try to locate the phone on a map. If it's nearby, have the phone ring. If it's not close enough for you to reach within the next few minutes, push the erase button. Hopefully an honest person will come across your device and notify you via the contact info you taped to your phone.

Step 2: Change your important passwords

As soon as you realize your phone is no longer in your possession and not quickly recoverable, go to the nearest secure computer, log into every account you had on your phone (banking, shopping, e-mail, etc.) and change your passwords. Start with the financial and shopping accounts that have your credit card on file, such as Amazon.com or your bank, and quickly move on to e-mail and social networks.

Step 3: Call your institutions

Inform your bank and credit card companies that you've lost your phone to alert them to possible fraudulent charges. The sooner they know, the easier it will be to dispute unauthorized account activities.

Step 4: Report the loss to the police

Notifying the police not only launches an official recovery attempt, but is also required for a credit freeze. The three major reporting agencies—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—require a copy of the police report before they'll freeze it. You may also need the police report to dispute fraudulent charges made on your credit cards.

Learn how to put a freeze on your credit file.

If you recover your phone

Wipe it anyway. You never know what malicious app or spyware someone may have installed while the phone was out of your hands. To be on the safe side, reset the phone to factory settings. If you see an option to "erase everthing," make sure you select it. (Before doing that, though, check the backups on your computer or cloud service to make sure that you have copies of all the irreplaceable photos and videos on your phone.) Some phones give you the option of resetting their settings without erasing everything. Make sure you check the Reset Everything option.

To reset an iPhone, go to Settings, then General, then Reset. You’ll see a warning that the next step will erase all your media and data, followed by a red Erase button. Hit this and after a few minutes, your iPhone is ready to restore. Finding Factory Reset on Android phones is trickier because device makers tweak Android to their own liking. In Settings, look for a submenu named Backup Options, Privacy, Accounts, or something similar. On Windows phones, the factory reset option is in Settings under About Windows Phone.

—Mike Gikas

Using cloud services to back up your smart phone

For iPhones. These offer two pre-installed photo or video backup options: My Photo Stream and iCloud Backup, both of which are part of the iCloud constellation of services. My Photo Stream, a free service designed for sharing photos with other Apple device owners, stores up to 1,000 photos (not videos). But after 30 days, Apple deletes them. iCloud Backup has no expiration date and also automatically backs up your videos. The first 5 gigabytes are free, but you can buy more for an annual fee: 15GB for $20; 25GB for $40; and 50GB for 100.

For iPhones, Android, or Windows phones. For Android phones (and iPhones if you download the Google+ app, or Windows phones if you get the Google Station app), Google Drive gives you 15GB of free storage for photos and videos (full size photos can be no larger than 100 MB and videos no longer than 15 minutes or saved at a resolution higher than 1080p). Upping storage to 100GB will cost you $2 a month, and data hogs can up storage to a terabyte for $10 a month. On Android phones, you'll find the Auto Backup option in Google+ settings, after tapping the Google icon under Accounts in the phone's Settings menu. On iPhones and Windows phones, you can access settings after launching the Google+ app.

Microsoft OneDrive (formerly Sky Drive) provides 7GB of free storage for photos, videos and more. Upping storage to 50GB costs $50 a year. But each file can't be larger than 2GB. Pre-installed on Windows phones, the app is a free download from Google Play on Android phones or the App Store on iPhones. On Androids and iPhones, you may have to fiddle with additional phone settings to make the backups automatic.

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