Phone theft used to be a growth industry. The snatch-and-run stealing of iPhones even had its own clever moniker: Apple picking. But such thefts might be in decline. Last year, 2.1 million Americans had phones stolen, according to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. (Another 3.1 million smartphones were lost.) In 2013, about 3.1 million phones were stolen, according to our previous survey.
The two Consumer Reports surveys employed slightly different methodology, which could account for some of the drop, but there is other evidence of a decline—and the trend might accelerate now that Android devices seem poised to embrace kill switches, which allow you to deactivate your stolen or lost phone.
Smartphones have allowed users to remotely wipe their data for years. But in 2013 prosecutors across the country started calling for technologies that disable, or "brick," stolen phones to deter thieves from stealing them for resale overseas. Minnesota and California both passed laws requiring manufacturers to make progress on installing anti-theft features by July 1, 2015.
Apple is well ahead of the deadline. After the company added a kill switch to its Find My iPhone app in 2013, police departments around the country reported that iPhone thefts dropped. Then, Activation Lock became a default feature last fall with the launch of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Samsung also added a kill switch—called Reactivation Lock—to a few phone models in 2013. But, in general, Android phones haven't had the technology. To protect their devices, consumers had to download aftermarket security apps.
Many expected Android Lollipop 5.0 to resolve that problem in late 2014, but manufacturers didn't implement the kill switch, presumably because of performance issues. Now, all eyes are trained on Lollipop 5.1, due to roll out this summer. Given the helter-skelter, one-off approach phone companies take to their mobile operating systems, however, it will be a long time before a kill switch comes to all Android models.
The technology could eventually save U.S. consumers $3.4 billion, according to calculations by William Duckworth, a statistics and data science professor at Creighton University. (His 2014 study included the costs of replacing handsets and a portion of the money consumers spend on phone insurance.)
Kill switches aside, many phone owners do an abysmal job of protecting their mobile devices, the new Consumer Reports survey found. Among survey respondents, only 46 percent set a screen lock using a four-digit PIN or a stronger method such as a lengthy password or fingerprint. Just 33 percent backed up their data, including photos and contacts, to a computer or online service. Built-in security technology can only get a consumer so far—to reap the benefits, you actually have to use it.