Smartphone thefts can devastate owners

Smartphone thefts can devastate owners

September 26th, 2013 by Casey Phillips in Life Entertainment

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Illustration by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.


Use the following tips to avoid making your smartphone a tempting target and safeguard your data if the unthinkable should happen:

• Review your warranty or service agreement to learn what happens to your mobile device if it is lost or stolen.

• Take advantage of the software features on most phones that require tracing a user-designated pattern or entering a pin/password to unlock the device. Don't share this information with those you don't trust. If it's written down, keep it somewhere that isn't easily accessible.

• If you use a password, pin or unlock pattern, don't keep the same one for long. Change it at regular intervals.

• Consider your surroundings before using your phone and be discreet in locations where you don't feel are safe.

• Don't leave your device unattended, and if you leave it in your car, lock it up in the glove compartment or trunk so that it is not visible to the public.

• Most smartphones include some kind of manufacturer- or operating system-specific cloud backup (iCloud, SkyDrive, Google Drive) to save data such as contacts, documents, apps, movies and photos. If available, use this to make sure that your data isn't permanently gone, even if your device is stolen or lost.

• Keep a record of your phone's make, model and serial number (usually accessible in your device's settings app) to help the police identify your device.

• Install a security app such as "Find iPhone" (free, Apple), "LoJack" (free, Android/Apple) or "SeekDroid: Find My Phone" ($5, Android) to track down your phone, communicate with the person who stole/found it and - if it can't be recovered - erase your data.

Source: Federal Communications Commission , Apple, Samsung, BlackBerry


If your phone is lost or stolen, the police should be your first call, followed by your carrier. Here are the hotlines for some of the major providers:

* AT&T: or 1-800-331-0500

* Cellcom: 1-800-236-0055

* MetroPCS: 1-888-863-8768

* Sprint Nextel Corp.: 1-888-211-4727

* T-Mobile USA: or 1-800-937-8997

* U.S. Cellular: 1-888-944-9400

* Verizon Wireless: or 1-800-922-0204

Source: CTIA: The Wireless Association


According to reports from "Lookout," a security and device tracking app, the following cities have the highest rates of iPhone theft or loss:

1. Philadelphia

2. Seattle

3. Oakland, Calif.

4. Long Beach, Calif.

5. Newark, N.J.

6. Detroit

7. Cleveland

8. Baltimore

9. New York City

10. Boston

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter on @PhillipsCTFP.

In Tennessee and Georgia, theft is deemed petty if the item's value is $500 or less, but describe the loss of a smartphone to its owner as anything less than devastating and you're likely to be confronted by crazy eyes. (Accompanied, perhaps, by a bit of frothing at the mouth.)

Never mind that many smartphones purchased off-contract cost more than $500 - even the iPhone 5c, Apple's recently released "cheap" version of the iPhone 5 - these devices have become so packed with sensitive personal information that losing one can feel anything but petty.

Requests for stories from Chattanoogans whose smartphones had been stolen yielded more than a dozen tales of devices being snatched from cars in parking lots, off office desks, during muggings and while traveling.

While exercising at a local gym, Rob Lowe, 43, says his locker was broken into. The thief made off with his wallet and BlackBerry but left behind his car keys. He later recovered the wallet, which was missing some cash and a credit card, but the data on the phone - a company device - was backed up by his office, so Lowe says the danger of losing anything irreplacable was minimal.

Nevertheless, he says, the theft encouraged him to think differently about his phone, which his company eventually replaced.

"You definitely feel a little violated when someone breaks into your locker and steals some stuff, so it was a little unnerving," he says. "I don't keep my valuables in a gym locker anymore since that happened, and I try to be careful with my phone."

In many cases, owners say their device eventually was recovered by the police or by locating the thief using tracking features or apps on the phone. Even when their phones were returned, however, some owners say they discovered that the damage already had been done.

"My wife's [Motorola] Droid Bionic was stolen in Rome, and by the time we checked our account, over $3,000 had been withdrawn," says Lucas Lewis of Chattanooga.

On Sept. 17, market researcher Nielsen released a study that showed smartphones now constitute about 65 percent of mobile devices in America. About 80 percent of those who acquired a phone in the last three months chose a smartphone, the study says

With an expensive smartphone resting in so many pockets and purses, they have become a hot target for thieves.

According to a July 18 statement from the offices of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, smartphones in the U.S. are being stolen at the rate of about two every second. The Federal Communications Commission reports that about 40 percent of robberies in New York and Washington D.C. last year involved smartphones or other cell phones.

In 2012, computer security company Symantec conducted a sociological study to find out the potential damage that could result from smartphone theft. The company intentionally left 50 smartphones in cities throughout the U.S. and Canada and tracked what apps and information those who recovered them attempted to access. Symantec logged the activity, including whether users tried to start fake applications with nefariously tempting names such as "Online Banking" and "Corporate Email" as well as unprotected files and emails such as "HR salaries" and "Saved Passwords."

The study results showed that smart phone users have cause for concern if their device is stolen or lost and recovered by a stranger.

• 96 percent of the phones were accessed by those who recovered them.

• 57 percent accessed the "Saved Passwords" file.

• 72 percent accessed the "Private Photos" folder.

• 60 percent accessed social networking and personal email apps.

• About 40 percent attempted to access bank account information.

According to the results, only half of those who recovered a phone made any attempt to return the device, despite the owner's email address and phone number being listed in the device's contacts.

The FCC, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association and the police departments in major cities have campaigned for better consumer education about the dangers of smart phone theft and the resulting potential for identity theft.

This group has pushed smartphone makers to program alerts into devices that walk new users through the process of setting up security features, including passwords, personal identification numbers and swipe-to-unlock patterns.

iOS 7, the most recent version of Apple's mobile operating system, takes several steps to improve its security features, including Activation Lock, which ties each device to the user's iCloud account. Any activities a thief might want to engage in with a stolen phone - turning off tracking apps or erasing the device - will now require a password. Essentially, Apple says, the feature makes a phone only valuable to its legitimate owner.

Although iOS 7 will come preinstalled on all new Apple devices, the update - and activation lock functionality - is backward compatible with the company's earlier generations of devices. On Sept. 18, Scheiderman and Gascón issued a joint statement categorizing Activation Lock as an "important first step" to ending smartphone theft and black market resale.

"It is our hope that ... the widespread use of this new system will end the victimization of iPhone users, as thieves learn that the devices have no value on the secondary market," the statement reads. "While it is too early to tell if Activation Lock will be a comprehensive solution to the epidemic of 'Apple Picking' crimes that have victimized iPhone and iPad owners around the world, we believe it is a step forward ... and strongly urge the other leading manufacturers of smartphones to quickly implement effective theft deterrents that protect their customers from violent crime."

Despite efforts to improve their awareness of built-in and after-market security software, smartphone users seem, by and large, not to be taking advantage of these defenses.

In 2012, ESET, a Slovakian information technology security company, collaborated with researcher Harris Interactive to survey those who used personal devices for work-related purposes at companies with so called BYOD ("bring your own device") policies. Autolock, a nearly ubiquitous smart phone feature that puts the device into a password-protected sleep mode after a period of interactivity, was enabled on only one-third of devices, according to the survey.

Protecting data on a smartphone is just as much about being forearmed as forewarned, victims say.

Dunlap, Tenn., resident Simone Altonen says the phone belonging to her husband, Bob, was stolen during a music festival, but he previously had installed a security app called SeekDroid that let them track the phone and take advantage of numerous security features. If worse came to worst and the phone proved unrecoverable, the app also featured a wipe function that could erase all their personal data remotely.

Ultimately, dogged perseverance and SeekDroid made all the difference, Simone Altonen writes via Facebook.

"We called [the thief] and told them that we knew where they were, we had their address and to take it to the police and we wouldn't file charges," she says. "They tried to call our bluff, but we sent them a picture of their house on Google Maps.

"We totally got it back."