by Al Sacco

7 Precautions to Take Before Your Mobile Phone is Lost or Stolen

Feb 15, 2011

Mobile phone security rule number one: Eventually, you will lose your mobile device. This can be a waking nightmare--but it's significantly worse if you're not prepared.'s mobile maestro Al Sacco offers seven must-follow tips.

Few things hurt more than losing your mobile phone.

Today’s cell-phone user packs hordes of information into his handheld, and much of that info is sensitive: payment card data; passwords; addresses; personal images and video; private corporate information. The list just goes on.

BlackBerry Torch 9800 with Padlock (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)
BlackBerry Torch 9800 with Padlock (Image Credit: Brian Sacco)

Fortunately, you can significantly reduce the potential trouble caused by a lost or stolen mobile device, simply by preparing yourself for the situation. Check out the following seven precautions to take before you lose your mobile phone.

1) Secure Your Device with a Password

The single most important measure you can take to protect the information stored on your mobile phone is to set a password to lock it. If a malicious party cannot gain access to your phone, he can’t make calls using your account, can’t use your browser to surf the Web and do as he pleases, can’t log in to your applications and impersonate you, can’t go digging around for personal information. You get the point.

All major smartphone platforms have built-in password options, and the majority of newer feature-phones, or non-smartphones, also offer some sort of password protection. Break out your phone’s user guide or search for it by model number online and figure out how to assign a password. (BlackBerry and iPhone users can find detailed password instruction here and here, respectively.) The chances of someone accessing the personal information on your cell phone dramatically decrease as soon as you assign a password to protect it.

It may take a while to get used to plugging in a security code every time you want to use your device, or seem like a hassle, but it’ll be well worth the effort should you even lose your phone. I promise.

2) Make Mobile-Phone Backup a Priority–and a Habit

Most smartphones and many modern feature phones come with some sort of desktop-based synchronization backup application that enables you to quickly, easily and securely backup information stored on your cell phone. For BlackBerry users, it is Research In Motion’s BlackBerry Desktop Software. iPhone users get iTunes, etc.

Whatever the application, it’s wise to get in the habit of backing up your smartphone every time you plug it into your computer–or more often if you rarely connect your handheld and PC. Many desktop sync programs let you set some sort of “automatic backup” option so your device backs itself up whenever connected to your PC, without any effort on your part. Again, familiarize yourself with your mobile phone’s user guide and locate the section on backing up and restoring data.

Remember: The newer the backup, the less information you lose along with a lost or stolen mobile device.

(BlackBerry users can find more information on backing up and restoring data here.)

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3) Add Owner Info to Your Phone’s Locked Home Screen After assigning a security password to protect your mobile phone, it’s a good idea to customize the home screen image that appears when the device is locked with some owner information and/or lost-phone-reward info. This helps ensure that whoever finds your phone will also have a way to get in touch with you to return it, should the person be so inclined, as well as an incentive, if you decide to offer up a reward. But remember: You really should be willing to pay out any reward your offer. BlackBerry Security Owner’s Information Screen Once again, hit up your mobile phone’s user guide or search online to see if your specific device has a built-in option to add owner information or a reward offer–something like: If found, please dial 555.555.5555 for a $50 reward. (Note: BlackBerry users can add home-screen owner information via their device Options > Display > Message on Lock Screen. And mobile phone users who can’t find any “built-in” way to add information to their phones’ locked home screens can simply create their own “wallpapers” with contact/reward info using Photoshop or another image editing app and then set that image as the home-screen wallpaper.) Another quick way to tie owner and/or reward information to your mobile phone is to simply tape a business card or other piece of paper to the inside of your phone’s case, if you use one. Or tuck a similar card into a case or case-pocket, if available. 4) Keep List of “Emergency” Contacts Away from Phone Many modern cell phone users become so reliant on mobile-device address books that they no longer make it a point to memorize their most-used cell-phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc. That’s all fine and good, as long as you have your mobile phones. The problem comes in when you suddenly and unexpectedly lose access to your mobile address book. This potential issue is an easy one to avoid, however. Just make a quick list of important contact people or companies and tuck it away in a wallet or purse–preferably somewhere away from your cell phone, so you’re less likely to lose the emergency contact list along with your phone. Sample contacts to include: Your significant other; nearby friends or family; your IT department’s help desk or IT contact, if you employ a corporate-issued phone; AAA or other roadside assistance organization; your wireless carrier’s customer information line, should you need to freeze your account; etc. Many customer service numbers can be found online, if you have Internet access, so it’s important to include the numbers or addresses that you would be unable to easily find online or elsewhere. 5) Prepare Phone-Location and Remote-Wipe Services Depending on your specific mobile phone model, you may be able to purchase and/or employ some sort of cell-phone tracking service to locate your lost mobile phone. Some of these offerings also allow you to remotely wipe information from your device. But if you don’t sign up, or at least set up, the service beforehand, you could be out of luck.

iPhone users can employ Apple’s MobileMe service to both locate lost or stolen iPhones and remotely wipe information after the fact, assuming they’ve enabled the appropriate Find My iPhone settings beforehand. (Read more about Apple’s MobileMe offering and its Find My iPhone feature on the company’s website.)

Corporate BlackBerry users should contact their IT administrators immediately after losing an enterprise-issued BlackBerry, since the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) provides a variety of safeguards to protect your lost device, including remote wipe. Consumer BlackBerry users will also soon get a cool, new MobileMe-Find-My-iPhone-like service, called BlackBerry Protect, to help locate lost devices and wipe data stored on those handhelds, among other things.

Check your mobile phone’s user guide or search online to see if any similar services are available to you.

6) Reduce Sensitive Info, Apps Stored on Your Device

Maybe you just don’t want to use a password–shame on you! Or perhaps you cell phone was stolen by someone who has enough information to guess your security code–that’s why you should never use your spouse or child’s birthday as a password.

These are just two of the potential reasons why a malicious party might gain access to your device after it’s lost or stolen. Use your imagination to come up with additional possibilities.

Preparing yourself for unauthorized access to your mobile phone means reducing the amount of sensitive information stored on your device–and protecting whatever sensitive info you decide to keep. In other words, don’t keep a list of your passwords in a file named “passwords.” It’s best not to keep any such list, but if you must, be creative and name your password-file something boring like “recipes.” And then store it in a hard to find place, buried on your media card, for example.

It’s also wise never to store payment information on-device, but if you have to, you should use some kind of password keeper application–many smartphones come with their own native password keepers and additional third-party apps are often available for download, as well.

Finally, you should reduce the number of applications in which you store a password and give the app approval to make purchases. For instance, if you’ve enabled one-click purchases in your Amazon Kindle for BlackBerry app, you should be aware that anyone with access to your phone will be able to purchase digital content. Or if you use the new Starbucks Card Mobile app to buy your java and you choose to save your password for quick access, unauthorized users will be able to buy all the caffeine they can stomach until your card runs dry.

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7) Encrypt or Protect Data Stored on Media Card My final recommendation doesn’t apply to all mobile phone users, since the ability to encrypt and protect data stored on media cards isn’t available on all mobile phone platforms–in fact, it’s not available on most. Many popular smartphones don’t even have external media card slots, for that matter–I’m looking at you, iPhone. BlackBerry Security Encryption Options Screen But BlackBerry users, and others willing to encrypt their media card using a PC, can and should put in a little extra effort to protect the information stored in external storage and not just the data stored on-device. If you don’t encrypt or otherwise protect the information stored on your media card, a malicious party could simply remove the card from your locked and secured device and access its data from a compatible card reader, like another smartphone or a PC.

It’s easy to encrypt memory cards in modern BlackBerry smartphones–BlackBerry Options > Security > Encryption > Media Card. Certain older Windows phones also made it simple to encrypt data stored on microSD cards. And anyone without a BlackBerry who wants to encrypt their microSD media cards should check out popular encryption solutions like TrueCrypt or perform a quick Google search for additional options.


Al Sacco covers Mobile and Wireless for Follow Al on Twitter @ASacco. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Al at