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Lose your smartphone? Uh-oh

A lost or stolen phone can trigger a major data breach. Prevention is simple, though. It's probably even free.

By Donna_Freedman May 21, 2012 1:21PM
Image: Damaged cell phone (© Nick Koudis/Getty Images)Lost your phone lately? You're not alone. In 2011 a phone-finder app company called Lookout located 9 million misplaced smartphones worldwide. That's about one device every 3.5 seconds -- and that's just one company.

A lost or stolen phone could cost you more than a replacement fee, however. If you bank online or shop with your smartphone, or use it for business, then a misplaced mobile becomes a potential data breach.

Recently, technology security company Symantec did a study wherein 50 smartphones were intentionally "lost" in five major cities in the U.S. and Canada. Almost everyone (96%) who found a phone accessed that phone, and 43% tried to access the (phony) online banking, too.

It's essential that you protect your information and make a missing phone findable. Fortunately, these are simple fixes. They're probably even free.

Leaving your phone unprotected is asking for trouble. The 50 phones in the study contained fake information about online banking, social networking and corporate data. Here's what some of the finders did: 

  • 83% checked out corporate data.
  • 70% accessed both corporate and personal information.
  • 43% tried to access online banking.
  • 50% contacted the "owners" to say they'd found the phones, but only 25% offered outright to return them.

"The consequences of having no control over that device -- for example, to remotely lock or wipe it -- can be devastating," the study authors noted.

2 ways to protect yourself

The first step is to set up password protection on your phone. Sound elementary? You'd be surprised. Symantec spokesman Francis deSouza told Bloomberg Businessweek that many consumers use the same security on their smartphones as on their laptops -- that is, none at all.

A woman I met last year told me her iPhone had been taken at gunpoint. It was password-protected, which was probably why the teenaged thieves threw it away. Because the device had a phone-finder app, the victim's husband was able to track it to a clump of bushes not far from where it was stolen.

You need a phone-finder app, too. At least one, Find My iPhone, is included in the mobile's settings. Others can be downloaded, many for free. 

Android users can download free apps like Where's My Droid? or Prey Anti-Theft. Features on both the Android and iPhone apps vary widely, from simply letting you know where the phone is (the apps use GPS) to allowing you to display a message on the screen so that whoever has the device knows you're looking for it. One app, Plan B, is a retrofit: You can download it after the phone goes missing.

My personal favorite is the chance to play a sound to locate the phone or to call attention to the thief. Of course, you may wind up startling that honest guy who's handing your phone to the coffeehouse manager.

Where, oh where, has my cellphone gone?

As noted earlier, some apps can remotely lock a phone or wipe out any data it contains. If your phone goes missing, lock it immediately.

What to do next depends on your situation. That robbery victim didn't have to erase the data because the phone was found so quickly. But if your device is at an unfamiliar address or even in a different city by the time you look, you might want to clean house.

Once you have an address you can also notify the police. "Somebody's got my phone" might be a low-priority complaint in a busy city, however.

Best-case scenario: The phone is actually behind the nightstand or wedged in between two couch cushions. You'll know as soon as the music starts or the car-alarm sound goes off.

Readers: Ever lose your smartphone? How did you handle it?

More on MSN Money:

Sep 18, 2012 7:26PM
Seriously?  Your IPhone password can be broken in 8 to 15 seconds with currently available programs over the net.  Of course there is something that can be done about IPhone theft and the contained data, but with the current profit margins, that will never happen.  In Europe, if your phone is lost, or stolen, there is a database that uses a couple of different numbers stored on it to prevent its use anywhere.  The same could be done here, with a small additional charge to your monthly bill, but don't count on it.  Replacing stolen cell phones is a billion dollar business after all.
Jun 1, 2012 4:15PM
Never lost really one.  Left one at a bar once and knew within an hour.  It was close to work so we were regulars and they were kind enough to hold it.  My issue is that last weekend I washed a phone (someone else's).  Oops!  No idea they left it in their pocket.
May 29, 2012 1:18PM
seriously - how careless are these people?  it's not that hard to hang on to a phone.  I've never lost mine and they're cheapies, don't like so called smart phones.   I'm amazed so many of these devices get lost.  really.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.