Why You Should Do More to Secure Your Smartphone

Most Americans don't secure their smartphones
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
By Herb Weisbaum | @TheConsumerman

If your cellphone were lost or stolen, you'd probably freak out, right?

Just think of all the sensitive personal information that's on your mobile device: contacts, passwords and PINS, maybe credit card or bank account numbers. And what about all of those personal pictures and texts -- maybe a bit too personal, that are stored on that device. Would you want someone else to see them?

And yet, most people don't take even the basic steps to secure their mobile device. A new nationwide survey by Consumer Reports found that 34 percent of all smartphone owners do absolutely nothing, not even a simple code to lock the screen.

"This is one of the reasons why so many people's accounts get hacked when their mobile phone is lost or stolen," said security expert Robert Siciliano with BestIDTheftCompanys.com. "When the device is not password protected, anyone who finds or steals it has direct access to all of your accounts that automatically log-in as soon as an application is launched."

Consumer Reports found that only 36 percent of the smartphone users have set a 4-digit PIN to lock their phone.

"Four digits are better than nothing, but the strongest passcodes have at least eight digits in them and have a mix of letters, numbers and symbols," said Mike Gikas, a senior electronics editor at the magazine.

Even fewer people take more aggressive measures to protect the data on their phone, such as:
  • Install software that can find the phone if it's lost: 22 percent
  • Install an antivirus app: 14 percent
  • Use a PIN longer than 4 digits, a password or unlock pattern: 11 percent
  • Install software that can erase the data on the phone: 8 percent
  • Use security features other than screen lock, such as encryption: 7 percent
"I'm not surprised by these low numbers," said Timo Hirvonen, a senior researcher at the global security firm F-Secure. "Most people don't see the need for security on their mobile devices. This is very short-sighted considering the kinds of information people have on them and access with them."

The world is going mobile -- and so are criminals.
That smartphone you carry around with you all day long is now a lucrative target for cyber-thieves who want to gain access to your personal information.

"That smartphone is a computer, like any other, and there's just as much risk of being a victim if you don't take the proper security precautions," said Alphonse Pascual, a senior analyst for security, risk and fraud at Javelin Strategy & Research. "Criminals are targeting those devices and people need to understand that."

Malware is a very real threat, especially for Android devices. The same type of viruses and other malicious software that can infect your desktop or laptop -- and spy on everything you do – are now being launched at mobile devices.

"They can record your user names and passwords, the websites you visit, the text messages or emails you send and receive -- it's pretty scary," Siciliano said. "You need to protect your mobile devices with antivirus, anti-spyware and other security software."

Here are some other things you can do:
  • Set the phone to lock after one minute or less.
  • Does your phone have a setting that will erase all the data if there are too many -- typically more than 10 -- unsuccessful attempts to enter the password? If so, enable it.
  • Update the operating systems, apps and programs as soon as you are notified. These updates often contain security enhancements and patches for vulnerabilities.
  • Use a "find my phone" app that lets you locate the phone if it's lost or stolen and erase all the data remotely.
  • Stick with trusted app stores. This won't guarantee "clean" software, but it will greatly reduce the risk.
  • Don't click links in an email, text or social network on your mobile device. It could lead you down a rat hole.
Consumer Reports estimates that more than 4 million smartphones were stolen or lost (and never recovered) last year. Should this happen to you, change the passwords and PINs on all of your accounts. If you use your mobile device to shop or bank, contact your financial institution and credit card companies. You should also file a police report. You may need this to dispute fraudulent charges on your credit or debit card account.

The editors at Consumer Reports have just published 5 Steps to Protect Your Smartphone from Theft or Loss.

More from CNBC

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Building Credit from Scratch

Start building credit...now.

View Course »

How to Avoid Financial Scams

Avoid getting duped by financial scams.

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

Carrying ANY phone around is just plain crazy!

April 28 2014 at 3:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If it's so smart why can't it protect itself automatically ?

April 28 2014 at 12:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"This is time I can't get back" = KOREAN TEENAGERS TEXTING, dying on ferry, not climbing out. People monopolized by screen-time, while U.S. Corps take away our health, jobs, real estate, pensions, banks, right to vote, and we're "COLONIZED BY MEDIA" to distract. More insidious than "1984" or "Brave New World".
"Facebook becomes almost an obsession for many people who feel isolated and alone if they don't sign in," I better stop "typing", get to my life.. which is precarious.

April 27 2014 at 6:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have an old motorola razr 755 flip phone. It isn't connected to the internet although it does have that capability. Went into the Verizon store two months ago to replace the five and a half year old battery. While I knew I was in for the hard sell sales pitch to upgrade I was unprepared for how condescending and obnoxious the older verizon salesman was going to be about the phone I was using. As a user of a dumbphone I was none the less dumbfounded at his attitude. I simply turned away and walk out. Went across the highway to the local Radio Shack and bought a new battery.

April 27 2014 at 6:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to wlh1923's comment

in defense of the verizon salesperson, your phone is at least 1000 years old (as far as cell phones go.) flip phones are pretty much history. they used to make nice ones. remember the motorola razr 2? i had one with each carrier back in the day. it was an awesome phone. if you want a brand-new flip phone today, you can still get one, but they are VERY CHEAP JUNK. this is mainly because smart phones is where the money is these days.... ANDROID...........APPLE, ETC. nothing personal, but your phone is ancient compared to todays's smart phones. even blackberry is on its way out...more than likely.............

April 28 2014 at 12:15 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

OLD and repetitive topic. Stop rewording old material!

April 27 2014 at 5:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This coming from a company (AOL) that got hit with the heartbleed virus and refeused to admit it. I am still waiting for notification from AOL other then they have detected unusual activity on MY email.

Run forest Run

April 27 2014 at 4:27 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mgl00k's comment

Unusual activity on your email? If you have AOL you have been bombarded with daily spam for so long you could hardly tell the difference now. Other than the home page I stopped using my AOL email address years ago. It was hijacked so many times as a spam springboard I had to empty my address book. If you have AOL email you must make sure your address book is empty because it is a springboard to bombard your contact with spam.

April 27 2014 at 6:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

most of this is not that helpful or safe. Touch ID or EYE ID to use for opening the phone only prevents use of the phone should it get stolen. It is hard to keep it that safe. The only way to be truly safe is not use the phone for anything sensative. No SEXting so they can blackmail. No storing or paying with cards over the phone. Easy yes. Also easy to steal. Most passwords are stolen when you open the phone by an app installed w/o your knowledge. The same way the vendor does it. if you are lucky and keep malware and spyware and other viruses off the phone then you are slightly safer. Also you must keep up the software updated. Even then the hacker usually mutate the virus so it gets past the antivirus. Anti viruses scan for the virus code. If the virus code changes. sorry.....Android is a problem because the LINUX OS is open source. Anyone can get the code and hack. Apple is slightly better because it is proprietary so they have to take some time to break the code.

April 27 2014 at 2:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Righht, I want to have to enter a password whenever i use my smartphone......

I don't store account numbers or anything that a hacker can use.

Since smartphones deplete the battery quickly I also carry a small dumbphone, If I lose my smartphone I call it and follow the ringing sound to my smartphone.

April 27 2014 at 11:15 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to englishman545's comment

the password and newer touch id using fingerprints or eyeprints only protect the phone from being used if stolen. it does not prevent the stealing of information. If you send any information over the phone it can be stolen. Most theft is done during transmission. Or the virus is installed when you are using the phone. As the manufacturer updates the software w/o your knowledge so do the hackers using the same method. When you type it in it is sent to the hacker as quickly as the recipient that you intended. The only reason you have not been hacked is not enough hackers. you have not been targeted yet.

April 27 2014 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don' understand how people can be walking around, driving around with the phone stuck in their ears, when they practically give away the hands free options for these phones. I see women in the middle of the day with kids in the car, latte in one hand, smoke hanging out her mouth, and the cell phone stuck in her ear with her head cocked to one side holding it, all while driving. Yes I pick on women because they have the kids most of the time, and this is not safe or wise behavior.

April 27 2014 at 11:02 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

The phones are getting smarter, but the people who use them at the wrong time and wrong places are not.

April 27 2014 at 10:57 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Charles's comment

Commons sense went out of the window many years ago.

April 28 2014 at 2:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply