Mobile phone theft on the rise – here’s how to protect your data for free

Graham Cluley
Graham Cluley
@[email protected]

Pickpocketing a mobile phone. Image from ShutterstockResearch released today has revealed that the theft of mobile phones is on the rise.

According to research done by British insurance firm LV=, the number of phones stolen annually has risen 25 per cent in the last three years, and is costing the UK £37 million a year. Apparently, only 1% of stolen phones are ever recovered by police.

Of course, the way this hurts you in the pocket will vary depending on how flashy your mobile phone is, and what data you keep on it. Apple iPhones and the swankiest Android smartphones can easily cost hundreds of pounds, and this makes them a more attractive target for muggers and pickpockets.

But there is a deeper risk than just the monetary value of the phone’s hardware – the data you keep on it.

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More and more of us are accessing our personal (and sometimes corporate) email from our smartphones. You may also be using your phone to link to your social media accounts, engage in online shopping or even handling your financial affairs.

According to researchers, 59% of adults do not have any form of password protection on their phone and only a small number of people bother to log out of banking or social networking apps, making it too easy for criminals to steal information and exploit victims’ identities.

Protecting your phone

Here’s some advice on protecting your phone from thieves.

Firstly, be careful not to flash your expensive smartphone around. Too many people draw attention to their phones when they’re out in public, or wear earphones over their clothes showing any potential thief which pocket a phone is being carried in.

iPhone passcodeSecondly, secure your phone with a PIN code (Android users typically use an equivalent swiping pattern) or a longer password – and set it to lock your phone when it hasn’t been used by you for a few minutes. A permanently unlocked phone is just making life too easy for data thieves.

Of course, make sure you don’t choose one of the top 10 passcodes you should never use on your iPhone.

A longer password or passphrase is a better choice.

Finding your phone

So, your cellphone is lost – how can you find it again?

Modern smartphones incorporate GPS functionality, which can help you track them down if you lose possession of them. But you have to enable this functionality before it is stolen.

iPhone users could try Apple’s own “Find my iPhone” app. Similar functionality is available for Android users via apps like Sophos’s free Mobile Security app.

(If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, read a great article by TV news reporter Benjamin Cohen who describes the lessons he learnt after he was mugged for his iPhone.)

Wiping your phone remotely

If you think the chances of recovering your phone are remote, or your worried that someone else could access data and information about you via your lost phone, you should attempt to wipe it remotely.

Apple’s “Find my iPhone” app can do this for iPhone users, Sophos Mobile Security for Android can lock or reset devices to their factory settings (effectively wiping data) in case of theft or loss.

Mobiles used by your workforce

Sophos MobileIf you are responsible for protecting mobile phone devices used by your company’s workers then security will be an important issue for you – potentially you have corporate secrets at risk if a user loses a phone.

The enterprise edition of Sophos Mobile Control delivers mobile device management for business, enabling BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device to work”), managing what apps can be installed and ensuring policy compliance for all your mobile devices – whether they be iPhones, iPads, Androids, BlackBerrys or Windows Mobile devices.

Here are the highlights of Sophos Mobile Control:

  • Enforces your security policies to ensure compliance
  • Lets you turn on the built-in security features of iOS (iPhone/iPad), Android, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices, including password protection or any iOS encryption.
  • Ensures that only registered devices that meet your policies – i.e., not rooted (Android) or jailbroken (iOS) – have full access to corporate data and that the users of non-compliant devices are blocked or face other consequences until the situation is rectified.
  • Helps locate, lock or wipe lost devices, from the admin web console or the self-service portal.
  • The security dashboard gives you an immediate overview of your company’s device status.
  • Lets you prove your corporate compliance with easy inventory and reporting tools.

Learn more and request a free trial of Sophos’s enterprise mobile security, or – if you’re an Android consumer – try out Sophos’s free security app (aside from helping you secure your smartphone from thieves, it also protects against Android malware!).

Pickpocketing a mobile phone image from Shutterstock.

Graham Cluley is an award-winning keynote speaker who has given presentations around the world about cybersecurity, hackers, and online privacy. A veteran of the computer security industry since the early 1990s, he wrote the first ever version of Dr Solomon's Anti-Virus Toolkit for Windows, makes regular media appearances, and is the co-host of the popular "Smashing Security" podcast. Follow him on Twitter, Mastodon, Threads, Bluesky, or drop him an email.

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