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Is your phone safe from thieves?

Malia Wollan, May 13, 2013, NYT :

In the month since two men violently shoved him to the ground and stole his iPhone 5, Dalton Huckaby has almost completely stopped calling his mother. It usually takes him a full day to text his friends back.

Nothing personal, but Huckaby is just too frightened to take his replacement iPhone out in public.

“I never thought this would happen to me,” said Huckaby, 39, a personal trainer who, since the robbery, which he called an iCrime, has become the kind of person who patrols his neighborhood streets in San Francisco warning strangers about the dangers of using their smartphones out in the open.


Phone theft, especially of Apple’s coveted iPhones, has increased sharply in recent years. Last year, nearly half of all robberies in San Francisco involved a smartphone.
So, how do people like Huckaby deal with the stress after a phone theft? How do you dodge robbers in the first place? And what should you do if your phone is stolen? Here are some suggestions:

Be like a dolphin

Dolphins sleep with one eye open, to stay semi-alert to lurking predators and unexpected danger. If you need to use your phone in the wilds of the subway or sidewalk, do so discreetly, reserving at least a portion of your cognitive capacity for minding what is happening around you. Avoid leaving your phone on the table at restaurants, bars and coffee shops where it can easily be snatched.

Thieves have perfected robbery tactics based on patterns of typical nonchalant public smartphone behaviour, the police say. Consider the sidewalk texter, casually holding the phone in front while walking, or more likely weaving, down the street. “A popular move is to slap the victim in the back of the head,” said Edward Santos Jr., a San Francisco police lieutenant. “The phone goes flying up in the air and many of these guys have gotten so good they’ll catch the phone in midair.” So long, phone.

Lock it up

Most thieves erase all identifying information from a phone within hours, sometimes minutes, after stealing it. Still, passwords on your phone’s home screen can help protect your personal information in case it is not wiped clean. A San Francisco woman whose iPhone was stolen from a San Francisco bar in January got a call a week later from Peru from a man threatening to publicly post nude photos he found on her password-free phone if she did not pay him, the police said. Avoid such unpleasantness by using a simple password, which can easily be enabled on both iPhone and Android devices.
Know your numerals

Write down your phone’s model number, serial number and unique device identification number. If your phone is stolen you will want to report these numbers to the police and to your carrier. There are several ways to find your phone’s International Mobile Equipment Identifier or IMEI number. On most phones, you can dial (AST)(HASHTAG)06(HASHTAG) and the number will pop up on your screen. Alternatively, turn the phone off, take the battery out and find the IMEI and serial number on the label under the battery. On an iPhone, go into Settings, click General and then click About and you will find a page listing your phone’s model and serial number and IMEI code.

Use location tracking apps


When a phone is stolen, one of the first questions the police will ask is whether you have a tracking app. The police have recovered stolen phones by tracking the GPS signal trail straight to a robber’s pocket or backpack. But for the apps to work, the phone has to stay on. Increasingly, the police say, practiced thieves know to turn the phone off and wrap it in aluminum foil before turning it back on, which thwarts the tracking technology. Still, it is worth installing an application to monitor your phone’s whereabouts.

Apple makes a free app, Find My iPhone, which can be turned on in Apple’s iCloud or downloaded from iTunes. Android users have several options for free third-party tracking apps including Where’s My Droid and Lookout. In addition to broadcasting a phone’s location, many anti-theft apps allow you to remotely lock your phone, wipe it clean of sensitive information and even remotely set off a screaming phone alarm.

Brick it


If your phone is stolen, immediately report the theft to the police and your carrier. Start with the police. Give them your IMEI and serial number and the password to remotely log in to your tracking app. Once you have finished dealing with the police, call your carrier. Tell your carrier to disable, or brick, your device, which will lock it and prohibit anyone else from activating it, even with a new SIM card. The carrier should add your IMEI number to a national database of blacklisted phones. The database keeps track of the phone’s IMEI number to prevent it from being activated. But the police say the database is largely ineffective because many stolen phones end up overseas, out of the carrier’s reach, and because thieves are able to modify the IMEI number. Still, it is better to have the phone entered in the database than not.

Change your passwords

Even if your carrier bricks your stolen phone, you should change your passwords for any social networking sites, email, banks and health care sites you may have visited from your phone.

Become a late adopter


Last month a woman was held up for her iPhone by two men, one with a gun, in El Cerrito, California, just east of San Francisco. After she handed it over, the robbers took one look at her older model iPhone and gave it back to her, the police said.

Just like the Apple fanatics camping out in front of Apple stores before a new iPhone is released, thieves want the latest model, too. Having one can make you a target.

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