Last week, my phone was stolen while I was visiting the beach. I made a few mistakes, not least of which was to bring my phone to the beach in the first place -- but my biggest mistake was not setting my phone up properly to minimize the damage of a potential theft, or to maximize the chances of getting my phone back if I lost it.
Don't make the same mistakes I did. Use this guide to smartphone safety and security to ensure that if you do lose your phone, you suffer as little heartache and headache as possible.
Write Down Serial Numbers
Every smartphone comes with its own identifying information, which includes both model numbers and serial numbers. Write these down and store them in a safe place. You'll need this information if you ever need to report a lost or stolen phone and/or file a claim.
Apple (AAPL) devices will display this information in the About section of their settings. A complete guide to finding serial numbers or other identifying information can be found on Apple's web site. Devices running Google's (GOOG) Android have similar screens on their Settings app that can be accessed in similar ways. If your phone's already gone, don't fret -- the box it came it should also have this information on a sticker attached to the outside.
If you can't recover your phone, report the phone's serial number as lost or stolen on Immobilize, CheckMEND, and Trace. This is a first line of defense against allowing any thieves to profit from your precious devices. These sites link your smartphone into national property databases used by police departments to track stolen goods, and if you buy a secondhand product,you can also use them to ensure you're not getting one that's been marked down thanks to the old five-finger discount.
Set up a Password
Less than half of American smartphone owners use password protection even though a few seconds spent entering PIN codes can save days of pain down the road.
The iPhone 5s allows you to protect your phone with a fingerprint "Touch ID," but all iPhones can use PIN-based numeric passcodes or longer alphanumeric passwords. You can set these protections in the Touch ID & Passcode section of the iPhone's Settings app. A help page on Apple's website offers details.
Android offers several options in the Security section of its Settings app. The latest version (KitKat) allows you to choose from a PIN code, an alphanumeric password, a pattern lock (where you slide your finger around a grid of nine dots) and a Face Unlock feature that Google warns is "less secure" than the former options.
Back up Your Data to the Cloud
Some smartphone users may not feel comfortable putting every piece of their personal data into Apple or Google's hands, but unless you're doing something really nefarious, consider the alternative: You don't want to lose months or years of pictures and documents in one unfortunate moment. Activating your device's cloud storage capabilities can give you peace of mind and prevent the permanent loss of precious memories.
Apple makes the process easy with iCloud. The iCloud option in your Settings app will automatically back up pictures, account settings, documents and even text messages whenever your phone is connected to Wi-Fi and plugged into its charger. Failing that, you can always begin the backup process manually from this same menu. You can also use iTunes to back up your data. Apple provides a handy help page that not only walks you through the process of setting up these two options, it also helps you decide which backup option is better for your needs.
Android makes some of this process even easier, as it will save your contacts and app data automatically to the Google account you use to access the phone. However, you will have to take extra steps to back up your photos and videos. You need to install the Google+ app. Go to the app's settings by clicking the menu button in the upper right corner, and you can turn on Auto Backup from here. Friends and family won't see any compromising snaps, since all backups will be private unless you choose to post them to your Google+ page as well.
Any files you create with Google Drive will be saved to your cloud account automatically, but text messages won't be automatically backed up. Luckily, there are third-party apps for that: try SMS Backup & Restore or Droid Backup.
Help Yourself (and the Authorities) Track Down Your Phone
The GPS functionality built into every smartphone can often mean the difference between getting your phone back and being forced to get a new phone that you'll have to painstakingly customize.
Google recently updated its Android Device Manager app, and it now offers similar functionality to Find My iPhone. If you lose your Android, you can try to track it down from your desktop on the Android Device Manager website with the Google account you use on your phone. If nothing else, these apps can help you keep your personal data out of thieving hands.
If All Else Fails, Tell Your Carrier
Every major mobile carrier has a way for you to report your smartphone as lost or stolen. If you haven't password-protected your phone or installed any security apps, this is your last line of defense against unwanted access to your files and personal information.
The FCC has a database of numbers and websites for reporting smartphone thefts to all U.S. mobile carriers, so you can quickly find out what you need to do to get your carrier on your side. Reporting a loss or theft in this way will typically result in your phone being "bricked," which will make it unusable and thus worthless to thieves. Make sure you have no real chance of getting your phone back before you take this step, or you might wind up kicking yourself when you find your bricked smartphone under the couch cushions a week later.
Motley Fool contributor Alex Planes holds no financial position in any company mentioned here. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter @TMFBiggles. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Google. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Google. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.