Without a contract, an iPhone 4S costs $649.
Since the device is so expensive without a contract, it can easily be sold on the black market for less than Apple’s $649 sticker. It becomes a case of easily flipped, readily stolen.
In fact, in the weeks following the release of the device, petty larceny in the Washington DC area jumped 52 percent. Likewise, in New York City, 70 percent of petty larceny thefts reported were iPhones, according to a December 2011 report in NY Daily News.
Compounding on the financial damage of losing a phone, smartphones now store loads of private information–everything from passwords to private communications, like SMS and email. Should this data fall in the wrong hands, a victim could suffer humiliation, identity theft, and more.
Thieves steal iPhones for a number of reasons. Less sophisticated thieves simply take them to make free calls before the original owner reports them stolen. Some thieves sell them to unsuspecting buyers, regardless of whether they work. And still the most sophisticated thieves know how to make iPhones work, even after the carrier disables the service.
With this in mind, here are a few tips for what to do if you suddenly find your iPhone missing. Also, remembering Murphy’s Law, we’ve included measures you can take to protect your data prior to your device being lost or stolen.
1. Password Lock & Erase Data – Settings > General > Password Lock > Turn Password On. These few simple steps will give you peace of mind in the event your iPhone is stolen. For added protection, you can elect the ‘erase data’ setting, which will wipe your data after 10 unsuccessful password attempts. This is the most secure thing you can do.
2. Find My iPhone App – Offered by Apple, this feature can be a lifesaver but it must be previously enabled through iCloud. To enable it: Settings > iCloud > Find My iPhone. If your device is lost and it’s been enabled, you can download the app on any other iOS device and track your missing phone on Google Maps, display a message on the stolen phone’s screen, play a sound at full volume for two minutes, remotely lock your iPhone, and even erase your data. There’s one major downfall: if a thief powers your device off, disables iCloud, or removes the SIM card, the app cannot offer any of its features.
3. GadgetTrak – This $3.99 app lets you track your iPhone as well. You can use it on any browser. It sends a disguised push notification to the thief. If they dismiss it, the tracking feature is activated, and it also takes a picture using the front and back cameras. This will show you the thief’s face and the area behind the phone, which you can then use to determine who has it and where. The downside is that the camera feature is an in-app purchase that costs $1. (a very small price to pay, considering.) The phone gives you location reports based on GPS, cell tower triangulation, and WiFi positioning. Like Apple’s app, the thief can power the device off and the app will do you no good. The app will, however, work even if the thief disables iCloud.
(Hint: download multiple tracking apps for added security.)
4. Report the Stolen Device - You should report your stolen device as quickly as possible, both to the police and to your mobile operator. Doing so will give you the best chance of recovering it. Each phone has an IMEI number, like a serial number, and it is not unheard of (yet extremely rare) for the police to work with your carrier to track the device. To reiterate, it is unlikely you’ll get the police and the carrier to work together to do this, but I did find this one instance where they did. To get your IMEI number, follow these steps. You should have it written down somewhere at home as a safeguard in case you need to report a stolen device to the police.
5. Change Passwords – Your iPhone likely has access to your email, your bank, Amazon, eBay, PayPal, Facebook, Twitter or any other accounts. Sign on to your iTunes, look at the apps you’ve downloaded and change all the passwords. Then change your iTunes password.
Reporting to your carrier disables your SIM card, meaning the thief will no longer have access to your account’s data, phone, and text plan. (an exception is iMessage, explained here) This does not prevent them from using the phone, as a sophisticated thief will remove the SIM card, set it to factory settings, and reconfigure with a new SIM card. At the least the thief won’t be making calls on your dime.
So in the end, the most foolproof way to protect your data is to password lock your phone. Without a password lock, your phone is vulnerable to thieves who will be able to view your pictures, access your texts, apps, and the like. The other methods will give you a better chance of tracking down a stolen phone, should the thief leave it turned on or leave the SIM in place. They will not work, however, if your SIM is removed or your phone is powered off.
One last thing to consider for financial security is to get theft insurance–offered by the carriers.
The best way to protect your private information would be to install multiple security apps, write down your phone’s serial number, and password lock your device.