5 top tips to prevent your mobile phone from being stolen

Alex Kidman 20 October 2017

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Your mobile is a highly desirable consumer valuable, so it's wise to take every possible step to ensure it isn't pilfered, and if the worst happens.

The chances are pretty good that your smartphone goes everywhere that you do. That's kind of the point of a mobile phone because they're great devices to stay in touch, stay informed and stay entertained while out and about.

However, they're also not all that cheap. Many Australians wander around with their mobiles on display, typically in use, but would you do the same thing with $1,200 in cold hard cash?

Odds are you just shook your head unless you're allergic to money. But with the most popular handsets in Australia typically retailing at or above that price point, that's essentially what you're doing. So what can you do to keep your precious phone safe?

  1. Activate a screen lock
  2. Record your IMEI
  3. Enable tracking features
  4. Stay smart with your smartphone
  5. Report promptly, and check insurance


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Activate a screen lock

Every smartphone, no matter whether you're an Android, iOS, Windows Phone or BlackBerry enthusiast, has a method to lock the screen down, and in some cases several. At the bare minimum you should opt for a 4-digit pin code, but you're more secure with a passphrase or biometric authentication, such as a fingerprint scanner found on many popular smartphones.

Many Android devices also offer a pattern recognition unlock, but research suggests this is poor security because the same patterns that are easy for you to remember are easy for someone glancing over your shoulder to remember as well.

A screen lock won't zap a mobile phone thief, but it serves multiple security purposes. Firstly, it keeps your precious personal data safe and secure, meaning your own photos and other details won't end up in the hands of the bad guys. It'll also stop opportunistic thieves from immediately using your handset to make expensive calls on your particular handset with your own SIM.

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Record your IMEI, and maybe mark your handset

Clearly being able to identify a phone as "yours" has numerous advantages, and there are a couple of ways to enable this. It's feasible to mark a phone via methods such as (careful!) engraving or ultraviolet pens so that it shows up as yours, although that's a rather permanent step that could be an issue if you plan to sell the handset on in years to come.

One very simple way to make your phone identifiable is to ensure you put it in a secure case. You should probably be doing that anyway to minimise damage, but it's also a sensible measure to make sure you can spot your phone in a second. After all, every iPhone looks like every other iPhone in a crowd, but if you've got a unique case on yours, you'll instantly know that it belongs to you.

One factor you can't change on your handset is the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number. This is a unique code for your handset that identifies it as your individual phone. Most smartphones will allow you to see the IMEI from settings; for iOS devices, it's in Settings>General>About, while Android typically has it in Settings>About Phone>Status. Alternatively, you can dial *#06# from your handset to find it.

Knowing your IMEI is important because it will not only make it easier to identify it if it is recovered but because your telco can use that information to block services from your phone with the IMEI, reducing its value to miscreants.


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Enable tracking features

The same GPS that you use for services such as Google Maps and Apple Maps is still active on your handset even if it's not in your possession, as is slightly more rudimentary mobile tower triangulation if the SIM card is still present and active within it. Combine the two with services such as Apple's "Find my iPhone", and you've got a stolen mobile phone tracking solution that can give you clues as to where your handset has ended up.

While Apple calls it "Find My iPhone", it actually works across a range of Apple devices, including iPad Pro and Apple Watch, so you can use the one service to keep an eye on all your devices from the one login.

Various Android manufacturers provide their own homegrown tracking solutions, but Google itself also has an option that should work across multiple Android devices, via the Find My Device app, which is free to download and use from Google Play.

Tracking apps do have limitations in the same way that GPS does, because it won't always get the precise details 100% correct, depending on the network conditions around your pilfered phone. If your device goes flat, isn't on a network or if the thieves manage to reset your device, you won't be able to track them.

It's also not particularly wise to try to confront phone thieves yourself, for obvious reasons of personal safety, but having this information could be valuable if passed onto the police.

However, it's worth enabling in any case simply because services like this will also allow you to remotely lock and remotely wipe your handset, reducing its value, as well as broadcasting a message on its lock screen. That way if your phone is just lost, or if thieves try to sell it, it'll be immediately obvious who the handset actually belongs to.

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Stay smart with your smartphone

This is the most critical step you can take when you take your smartphone out and about, where most smartphone thefts occur. If you're going to a large public gathering, consider how and where you'll secure your smartphone!

Naturally, you're going to want to take snaps of the band you're seeing or the sports being played, but once you've taken that shot, where is your phone going? Into a secure pocket, or one that's easily dipped into by a pickpocket? Into a secure bag on your shoulder, or one that's going at your feet where sneaky types might whip the whole thing?

When you stop at your favourite cafe for a caffeine fix, do you leave your phone on the outside table while you sip where it'd be pretty easy for someone to snatch and run? When you walk home after work, are you checking your social media while you go making your phone terribly obvious? It may be less interesting, but it's safer to keep it in your pocket, depending on where you have to walk to get home.

You can't prevent absolutely every scenario for mobile theft, but the first and most vital step is to use your head around such a valuable item.


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Report promptly, and check insurance

If the worst happens, and you discover your mobile phone is gone, there are a few steps you must take. First of all, while it's a little mortifying, it's worth calling your own number, because it's always possible you've simply left it behind somewhere, and a good samaritan may find it and answer it, which is possible even when it's locked. Before you laugh, I've used that method myself to recover an inadvertently lost iPhone.

Presuming nobody's answering, you should report the theft to both your telco, so they can block the SIM and IMEI on your handset, as well as the police. If you've got tracking features such as Find My iPhone enabled, that extra data could prove valuable to them, although it's not worth trying to take matters into your own hands with that information.

Blocking the SIM will stop any dodgy charges appearing on your next bill, while blocking the IMEI will stop thieves from being able to profit from your loss, and may make it easier to recover your phone if they are nabbed at some future date, or if it's sold on to another unsuspecting party.

You should also check your insurance specifics around your lost phone. Not all mobile phone insurance covers lost or stolen phones, but it's possible it could be covered by your home and contents insurance, even if the loss isn't part of a burglary of your premises.

Some personal effects insurance may also cover a stolen mobile phone if it's pilfered while you're in public places, but it's vital to understand what is or isn't covered.

It's also important to contact your telco simply because your phone being stolen isn't grounds to terminate your mobile contract. If you're on a phone plan with a supplied handset, you'll have to continue making payments on it, which means it's also time to go shopping for a replacement handset.

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