Your smartphone is more than just a phone – it’s a small, personal computer. And that makes it an attractive target for criminals and identity thieves. In today’s Daily Shield article, Intersections’ Consumer Security Adviser, Neal O’Farrell gives us the scoop on smartphone safety for the holidays. Our advice: Hang on to your smartphone this holiday season!
A smartphone is not really a phone, and that’s a fact you should keep in mind over the coming holidays. A smartphone really is an ultra-powerful, ultra compact computer with a phone thrown in for convenience. And it’s that computing power that has millions of users running their lives around that tiny, pocket-sized device. And why thieves around the world want those devices too. Maybe yours.
With power comes storage, for lots of personal and work information, and so to lose a smartphone could be the first step towards losing your identity. Which might explain why we’re seeing such a spike in the theft of smartphones, in public places and crowds and in broad daylight.
According to a recent study by the New York Police Department, of the 16,000 or so robberies reported in New York in the first ten months of this year, half involved mobile devices and most of those were phones. The iPhone is one of the most popular, accounting for more than 70% of phones stolen on buses and subways, and often snatched out of the hands of the user. And computers, MP3 players, and tablets were taken in nearly half the reported burglaries in the city.
There are a number of explanations for this trend. Personal tech gadgets have a good resale value and will fetch more money when fenced. And many thieves will steal a smartphone or iPad simply because they want one.
The smartphone and the iPad are the new wallets and purses, yet imagine if you sat on a busy subway with your wallet held close to your ear for everyone to see, while at the same time your mind is already home and sitting down to dinner? That’s just too much of a temptation for opportunist thieves.
But more thieves are turning to gadget theft as a way to steal the owner’s identity. Your phone alone could be a treasure-trove of information that thieves can use to piece together your identity, including:
• Personal and family information, including names and addresses, contained in email and texts.
• Personal, family, and work phone numbers
• Work information including computer logins and passwords.
• Financial information and financial apps.
• Location information that can tell the thief where you go and where you hang out.
• Downloaded books and music that clues the thief into your musical tastes.
• Photos of you, your friends and family that can help the thief identify you or impersonate you.
And while there are moves towards a national standard that will instantly disable a phone or device so it can’t be used with any carrier, thus turning into little more than a sleek brick, thieves are easily able to replace a SIM card in a phone and being using it immediately.
In a recent blog on CIO magazine, security writer Tom Kaneshige spoke about how as he sat on a train in San Francisco he got the eerie feeling that two passengers, aged only around 10 or 11, were paying just a little too much attention to him and his phone as they worked their way down the carriage in his direction. He trusted his instincts and put the phone in his pocket, and turns out he made the right decision. Minutes later the two kids snatched a phone from the ear of a passenger and dashed away into the rush-hour crowd.
As he said in his blog “Smartphone owners bury their noses into phone screens and plug their ears with earbuds, making themselves easy targets. Lost in our own virtual smartphone worlds, we’re just not aware of our surroundings anymore. Can you ask for a better victim profile?”
He added “As the holiday shopping rush ramps up, smartphone owners will be whipping out their phones more than ever. Smartphones in crowded places are becoming a common sight, as holiday shoppers tap the power of apps to keep track of Christmas gifts, get directions, compare prices, check into bars and restaurants.”
If you don’t want to gift your favorite phone to a complete stranger over the holidays, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
• Less is more. If you don’t really need to use your device in a public place, or you’re just bored, put it in your pocket and find some other way to distract yourself.
• Eyes up. If you’re using a phone or tablet on a train, a bus, subway, or park bench, keep an eye on the people around you so you’re not surprised by a quick grab-and-dash.
• Be especially vigilant if you’re on your phone on a busy street. It’s no uncommon for thieves to run past a target, snatch the phone from their ear and disappear back into the same crowd.
• Keep as little personal information as possible on your phone. Here’s a revolutionary idea – use the phone as a phone, and not a portable data locker. If your phone is stolen, your life doesn’t go along with it.
• Consider using one of the growing number of free apps, like Lookout, that will backup and restore your phone’s contents, disable your phone, and even help locate it if it’s stolen.
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