Protect Your Family's Phones and Tablets

Eight tips for safeguarding your mobile devices from theft.

By Jacqueline Emigh

Whether you're an adult or a kid, the loss of a smartphone or tablet can be very unsettling. The practically universal initial response is something like, "Oh, no! Where did it go?" Well, you might have simply left the device behind at work, school, or a friend's house—or let it slip onto the sidewalk somewhere—in which case you'll probably get it back, sooner or later. But as the grim statistics show, plenty of crafty thieves are on the prowl, ready to grab a gadget from your bag, your pocket, or your restaurant table, and then wipe it clean and sell it to someone else.

If you can’t locate a missing phone or tablet, you'll need to get a new one, of course. Beyond that, you may have lost some photos, documents, and other personal info along with the device. Here are some tips on how to prevent having your device stolen, and what to do if the worst does happen.

1. Consider signing up for a theft insurance plan.

Several wireless carriers offer protection plans against theft, equipment failure, and accidental damage through a company called Asurion. You can sign up for a plan like this at the store where you get (or got) your mobile device, and then start paying a small extra fee for the protection plan as part of your phone bills.

Asurion specializes in quick replacement of devices. Exact terms of Asurion plans—such as monthly fees and deductibles—vary from one carrier to the next, however, so an Asurion plan offered through Verizon (for example) might not be the same as an Asurion plan through Sprint.

Lots of other companies offer so-called protection plans, too. But be careful: Many of these plans cover things like equipment failure and accidental damage, but not loss or theft.

Among the third-party insurers that do offer plans covering loss and theft are Worth Ave. Group and Allstate’s Esurance. These insurers tend to sell multiple tiers of protection, though—some without coverage for vanished devices. So if you’re purchasing insurance through them, make sure that the particular plan you get does indeed include loss and theft protection.

Also, keep in mind that it may make more sense to replace an inexpensive phone or tablet yourself rather than take out an insurance policy on it. If you pay only $25 for an Android phone in the first place, why shell out money for insurance premiums each month—to say nothing of the deductible of something like $75 that kicks in for a replacement unit if you do lose your device?

2. Use strong password protection.

Before trying to wipe a stolen device, a thief may look through it in search of tidbits of information that might be useful for identity theft. The best precaution here is to protect your device with a strong, difficult-to-guess password that is least eight characters long. Your password should include letters, numbers, and special characters (such as #, &, and #).

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The same advice goes for apps that contain personal data such as credit card numbers, and for online accounts with email services and social media and auction sites: Protect them with strong passwords.

Young children should share all of their passwords with their parents. Teens can be allowed more privacy, but they should still share the device password with their folks, for backup in the event that they forget it.

3. Use antitheft software.

As noted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), apps designed to help you locate the device from any computer, lock the device to restrict access, wipe sensitive data from it, and make it emit a loud sound or "scream" are available.

The only way to pinpoint the device’s current location, however, is if the lost device is still "on" and connected to the Internet when you try to track it down from another device. If not, assuming that the device’s GPS is enabled, you may still be able to determine a recent location of the device.

As evidenced by user reviews on Apple's iTunes, many people have successfully located their lost device by using Apple's Find My iPhone app.

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In addition, Apple now has an Activation Lock "kill switch" feature activated by default. This feature prevents anyone from authorizing a wipe or a fresh operating system install on the device unless they are using the device owner's existing iCloud credentials on record.

On smartphones that run Android 2.2 or later, you can enable location finding and remote wipe and erase functions through Android Device Manager, by first accessing ‘Security’ in the Google Settings app on your phone. Later, if you lose your phone, you can try to find and disable it from any other device by going Google's ‘Find your phone’ service on the web.

Lots of third-party antitheft apps are available, too, including some that offer features you might not get from Apple or Google. Among them are Prey Anti-Theft, FindMyDroid, and Spyware Pro.

The multiplatform Prey app, for instance, uses the camera on the missing device to snap a photo of its surrounding environment (hopefully including the face of the thief). Prey works across Android, iOS, OS X, Linux, and most editions of Microsoft Windows (except Windows Mobile and Windows Phone).

4. Write down the serial number of the device.

Every smartphone or tablet comes with a unique serial number, usually known as the IMEI (International Mobile Station Equipment Identity) or MEID (Mobile Equipment Identifier). Generally, you can find this number on the box that the phone or tablet came in, as well as in the device’s settings menu. In some instances it is included under the battery, too. If you can't find an IMEI on a cellular device, dial #06# on the device's phone, and the serial number should show up on your screen.

Write down this number and store it in a secure place. You'll need it, along with the make and model of the device, if you ever need to report theft or loss of the device to the police.

5. Put the owner's name on the device.

Plenty of honest people in the world will go out of their way to return a phone or tablet that they find somewhere. But to do so, they need to be able to find you. You can put your name and email address on a phone or tablet either by having a company etch them there or—if you may want to resell the device some day—by simply taping this information onto the back of the phone or tablet. These approaches can be particularly useful with Wi-Fi-only tablets, which are not accessible through cellular networks unless used with cellular modems.

Etching doesn't cost much, and it might not cost you anything. Apple now offers free etching services to anyone purchasing a new iPad or iPod. As the picture below indicates, you can arrange to have just about any words you like etched onto the back of the device. But for purposes of getting back a lost device, a name and email address are the most sensible choice.

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If you live or work in New York City, a hotbed of device theft, you can get the etching at no charge by going to one of several designated police precinct stations and registering the phone or tablet with the NYPD. Unlike many other etching services, which rely on laser or CNC (Computer Numerical Control) technology, the NYPD uses a UV (ultraviolet) permanent marker. The markings are invisible to the human eye, but will glow under a UV light. The data marked on the device is stored in the NYPD's database, along with your information.

Commercial etching services are another option. Generally, your pay a small setup fee for laser or CNC etching, plus some additional costs per character, with the price typically adding up to well under $20 per device.

Or simply print your name and email address at a small font size on your home printer, cut it out as a small strip of paper, and use shipping tape to attach the paper to the back of your device. If shipping tape doesn't adhere well, you can attach duct or electrical tape to the device instead. Then print your name and email address on the tape with a permanent-ink marking pen.

6. Store backups of important docs in the cloud.

You should store any document that's important to you—whether it be a favorite photo or a lengthy homework assignment—online in a cloud-based service.

Examples of such services include Apple's iCloud, Google’s Google+, and Microsoft's OneDrive. There are also lots of third-party examples, including the popular multiplatform Dropbox service.

7. Practice the safest ways of carrying devices.

Whenever you leave a public place, check to see that you aren't forgetting your phone or tablet on the counter or in a restroom. On the whole, it makes more sense to stow the device in a shoulder bag than in a backpack, so that it can't be snatched from behind. But the shoulder bag should have a zipper—and you should keep that zipper zipped up!

Should you carry a cellular device in your pocket or beneath your clothing? Well, there is no proven connection between cell phone radiation and cancer—but even so, the FCC recommends keeping a cell phone at least 5 to 25 millimeters—about 0.2 to 0.9 inch—away from your body, in order to maintain "safe radiation levels." That suggests that the answer is no.

There are additional reasons not to park your phone in your back pocket. Not only does a back pocket provide easy pickings for a thief, but you might sit on the device and break it—or trigger a potentially embarrassing episode of "butt dialing."

The NYPD advises the public to put away all electronic devices before entering the city's subway system. That's a good idea when you’re traveling on any city's public transport system. But if you can't resist the temptation to pull out your phone or tablet to listen to music or play a game during that long ride home, try to stay alert to signs that someone nearby may be eyeing the device in a suspicious way.

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8. If the worst does happen, don't panic.

If you actually witness someone snatching your phone or tablet, or if you have other evidence of theft, get someone nearby to contact 911 emergency services. Maybe the cops can grab the thief red-handed.

In any event, ask someone nearby to make a phone call to the device immediately. If a friendly stranger answers the phone, you might be in luck.

As soon as possible, access another device—such as your laptop PC or a friend's iPad—and see whether you can locate the missing phone or tablet through your device’s antitheft software.

Still can't find it? Contact your wireless carrier, local police precinct, and insurance company (if you have one) to report the loss.

The wireless carrier will likely stop billing on the account and disable the device, if it isn’t disabled already. The carrier may also want you to provide it with a police report of lost or stolen property, as documentation that the device has gone missing.

If you’re protected by theft insurance, your insurance company will probably send you a shiny new phone or tablet right away—but unfortunately, you will have to pay that deductible!

Photo credits: Spyware Pro, Pixabay.com, Apple.