What to Do If Your Smartphone Is Stolen

Password protect everything and take advantage of encryption to ensure the safety of your devices.

The Problem

Your personal computer, smartphone or other device is lost or stolen, putting a treasure trove of information about you at risk.

Scare Factor

(Image credit: Thinkstock)

A thief who steals your device may be able to access your e-mail, view sensitive documents or use your banking or mobile wallet app to get account numbers and rack up charges. Malware that you accidentally download could spy on your transactions, record keystrokes and grab data. When you use public Wi-Fi, other users on the network could snoop on your online activities.

How to Combat: Stolen Social Security Number | Medical ID Theft | Tax Identity Fraud | Hacked Credit/Debit Account

How to Avoid It

Always lock your devices with a fingerprint sensor, a password or a PIN—one with six or more characters, if possible. Password-protect banking, wallet and other sensitive apps, too. When you get notifications to download updates for your operating system, antivirus software and other programs, do it right away because they may patch security flaws. But never click on a link or attachment in a text message or e-mail from an unfamiliar source (or from what appears to be a familiar source, if anything about the message looks fishy) because it could infect your device with malware.

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Use trusted Wi-Fi networks, preferably ones that are password-protected. Although encrypted Web sites (those that begin with “https”) add protection by making your activities unreadable by hackers, it’s better to be safe than sorry; avoid online banking and other sensitive transactions when using public Wi-Fi, especially through mobile apps that don’t clearly disclose whether they’re encrypted. If you travel a lot, consider using a personal Virtual Private Network (VPN), which funnels Web activity through a secure network, says Gary Miliefsky, CEO of cyber­security firm SnoopWall. Private Internet Access, for example, charges $6.95 a month.

Before you download a mobile app, read reviews, check its privacy policy and permissions, and visit its Web site to see whether it looks legitimate. If an app requires, say, access to your phone’s camera or GPS for no apparent reason, take a pass on it. Be especially cautious with apps from the Google Play store because anyone can place an app on that market. Apple screens apps more rigorously.

What to Do If You’re a Victim:

With remote tracking and wiping capability, you can find a stolen or lost device’s location and erase its contents. Users of Apple’s computers, tablets and phones can set up the option through iCloud and with the Find My iPhone app. Android owners can use Google’s Android Device Manager app.

If your smartphone’s performance is unusually slow or if the device gobbles data service or battery power rapidly without clear cause, it may be infected with malware. Your wireless carrier’s phone store may help you clean up the problem and reset the phone free of charge. Services such as Best Buy’s Geek Squad can help with virus removal, too.

How to Combat: Stolen Social Security Number | Medical ID Theft | Tax Identity Fraud | Hacked Credit/Debit Account

Lisa Gerstner
Editor, Kiplinger Personal Finance magazine

Lisa has been the editor of Kiplinger Personal Finance since June 2023. Previously, she spent more than a decade reporting and writing for the magazine on a variety of topics, including credit, banking and retirement. She has shared her expertise as a guest on the Today Show, CNN, Fox, NPR, Cheddar and many other media outlets around the nation. Lisa graduated from Ball State University and received the school’s “Graduate of the Last Decade” award in 2014. A military spouse, she has moved around the U.S. and currently lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two sons.