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Your phone is you: How to protect your device from ID theft

(Image credit: Shutterstock / ImYanis)

Every day you add more and more information to your phone. Each day, it becomes a more complete digital representation of you. Bank accounts, the PayPal app, even password managers - they're all there, along with social media accounts, photos… the list goes on.

The implication is clear. Your phone represents a massive risk to your personal privacy and your identity. Once stolen, a phone can be mined for data that can then be used to steal your identity, making you a victim of ID fraud.

Protect your smartphone from theft

The first step in minimising identity theft via your smartphone is to make it difficult to steal.

To begin with, don't leave a phone on view in your car. Use a glove compartment or other locker or slip it under a seat. If the phone is out of sight, it isn't a target. The same goes for or any device storing personal, identifiable data.

On the street, keep your phone out of view. Don't wave it around; secure it in an inside pocket of your coat. Otherwise, keep it in a secure pouch in your bag, worn securely. Use hands-free Bluetooth earpods to avoid having to remove the phone to make or receive calls.

You should also be aware of the tactics of street criminals when it comes to stealing phones. They have various tactics to ingratiate themselves into your personal space and help themselves to your belongings. Key examples:

They ask you for the time. While your initial reaction would be to pull out your phone to check, this puts it at risk. Use a clock, or simply keep moving without responding.

You're accosted in a crowded place. This can happen without you even realising. A key example is the moment on a tube train when people enter and exit, dozens pushing past you all at once. It's a prime opportunity, so again keep your phone out of view.

While many of these practices are completely obvious, it is important to keep them in mind.

Unbreakable Lock

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Protect your smartphone secrets

Next, you need to ensure that if your phone is stolen, it doesn't reveal anything that an identity thief can use. Various tools and apps can be used to ensure your phone doesn't spill your secrets.

1. Encrypt your phone

Use your phone's full disk encryption option to ensure that data cannot be accessed without the correct authentication. All mobile platforms come with an encryption option, so take the time to find out how to activate this. Note that if you forget the phone's password, the data cannot be retrieved once encrypted.

2. Secure authentication

Most phones offer facial recognition, a thumbprint scanner, or the option to enter a secure password. Avoid four-digit PINs and shapes, as these leave a grease mark on the screen, which can be used to crack the code. For convenience and reliability, fingerprint or thumbprint security has proved to be the most effective.

3. Use an app-locking tool

If your phone is stolen and access gained, some apps (such as contacts, email, cloud drives, and social networks) will spill your secrets as soon as they're launched. With an app lock installed, you can set individual passwords for sensitive apps. You've probably realised that this might prove inconvenient in some scenarios, but overall, it is a good security option to use.

4. Install an anti-theft app

Tools that detect a change in circumstance can initiate an anti-theft alarm. For example, if a phone is taken off charge, moved, or the SIM card changed without authorization can initiate an alarm. Such apps typically feature the option to disarm the alarm, or even to send it silently, advising a nominated contact (or all of them) that the phone has been stolen.

5. Find and wipe a stolen phone

Find My Device on Android and Find My Phone for iPhone can be used to remotely wipe a stolen phone. Apps like Cerberus and Prey can also do this, as well as photograph the perpetrator using the phone's camera. If your phone is stolen, you can destroy the data remotely via a web app.

All these tools can be used to protect your phone from unauthorised access. If you're reluctant to use any of them, at least use disk encryption and your platforms phone discovery service.

Be aware of phone account identity theft

A whole other type of identity theft surrounds mobile phone use. Phone account identity theft occurs when a cell phone is bought in your name, without your knowledge. You might have been a victim of this, or your address might have been used with another person's name. This is a common tactic to take advantage of a superior credit rating and acquire finance to buy a phone.

Phone account fraud happens by stealing a victim's identity in one of two ways:

  • Dark Web sites with databases full of stolen account details are visited, details bought, then used to buy a phone, with the bills all charged to the victim.
  • Phishing can be employed to trick the victim into divulging personal details required to open an account. These are then taken to a smartphone retailer, accompanied by fake ID, and a phone bought.

This is a type of identity theft you should be able to easily spot. When the account statement arrives, get in touch with the mobile phone network and report the contract as fraudulent.

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Shield your identity from theft - secure your phone

With so much of your personal information carried around in your pocket, it makes sense to understand the risks and take precautions to secure your phone.

By now it should be completely clear: protecting your phone is a key step in the fight against identity theft. Follow these steps to ensure it never leaves your sight, remains completely secure from unauthorised access, and doesn't leak your personal data to identity thieves.