Having your precious smartphone swiped is one thing, but giving the thief free access to your apps and data can potentially be even worse. There's a lot you can do before you lose the phone in the first place, though, that will make it much harder for thecriminals to do anything other than wipe it and sell it on.
1. Lock the screen
When Apple introduced the fingerprint scanner to the iPhone, company execs estimated that around half of us didn't bother locking our phones. Whether it's a swipe gesture or PIN code, make sure there's some kind of protection between a thief and your home screen. Workarounds do exist for lock screen security, but it buys you some valuable time.
If you don't want to have the hassle of tapping out a code every time you want to check Instagram, at least activate a lock screen method when you leave the house or are heading off on a journey. Tasker is one of the apps you can use on Android to automatically set up lock screen security based on your location.
For maximum protection, dial the lock screen delay right down. On Android, it's the Automatically lock option on the Security menu in Settings (note that this won't appear until you've activated some kind of security for the lock screen). On iOS, tap Require Passcode on the Passcode page of Settings to set the delay. On both OSes, the security lock delay is set separately to the delay that switches the screen off.
2. Activate remote features
There's no excuse for not setting up a remote tracking and wiping features on your handset, as the software makers have made the whole process very simple. Find My iPhone has been around since iOS 3.0 and can be activated from within the iCloud options page in Settings. You can then log into iCloud on the Web and see where your device is: Lost Mode lets you lock the device from afar, while the Erase iPhone option does exactly as advertised.
It's a pretty identical story on Android, where you can track all of the devices linked to your Google account from one Web interface. It's called Android Device Manager and again you have the option to either lock or erase your smartphone as well as locate it on a map. On your handset, you need to launch the Google Settings app then tap Android Device Manager to find the options.
Using a Windows Phone or BlackBerry is no excuse for not getting these precautions in place. BlackBerry handsets use a feature called BlackBerry Protect which you can find on the System Settings menu, while Windows Phone owners can use Find My Phone, which is automatically set up when you log into your handset using a Microsoft account.
3. Back up your files
Locking criminals out of your phone with one click on a website is all well and good, but what about all of that data you have stored on your handset? The risk of losing your phone or having it stolen should be all the motivation you need to ensure that everything on your handset is duplicated somewhere else, and thankfully this isn't too difficult on modern mobiles.
Google will take care of all your app data, Wi-Fi passwords, and phone settings if you activate the feature in the Backup & reset section of Settings (your contacts, emails and calendars are automatically synced with the cloud, of course). Apple provides backup options under the Storage & Backup section of the iCloud page in Settings. These seamless solutions are a far cry from the early days of smartphones, as anyone who lived through them will know.
As for media content—photos, video, music—make sure you have an automatic backup routine in place. iCloud, Google+ Photos, Dropbox, OneDrive, Box, Flickr and various other apps can all be relied upon to get your files up into the cloud at the earliest opportunity. How you configure this process depends on your setup—buy a movie from iTunes and you've always got the download available, for example—but it's worth doing an audit to work out what's on your phone and where else it's stored.
4. Configure your apps
You probably don't want thieves deleting files from your Dropbox or posting on Facebook, so some preparation is worthwhile even if the steps we've described above can limit the damage. As we've said before, it's important to switch on two-step authentication for any services that support it—that includes iCloud, Google, Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter and others.
Most of these apps and sites also include remote logout tools that you can utilize if your phone is lost or stolen. On Facebook, for example, open the Security page of the Settings screen and click Edit next to the Where You're Logged In heading. If uninvited guests have managed to log into your account, you'll see evidence of it here, and you can kick them out.
In Gmail, click the Details link in the bottom right corner of your inbox to see information about recent logins. Again, there's the option to remotely cancel any suspicious activity. Even if you inadvertently terminate a genuine login, all you have to do is sign in again from scratch on the relevant device. There's a similar tool available from your main Google account page on the Web that covers activity across all Google services. Other apps, such as Dropbox, let you do the same kind of investigating.
5. Encrypt your data
Encrypting your data adds an extra level of security that makes it very hard for even the most determined hackers to get personal information off your handset. It slows down some of the operations on your phone (as data needs to be decrypted before it's accessed) but you might consider the trade-off worth it. On iOS, this is done automatically as soon as you set up a passcode for your device, so it's already activated if you've followed our previous steps.
On Android, it's a separate option which you'll find in the Security section of Settings. It can take some time to completely encrypt your handset, but once the initial process is finished you should be able to use the device as normal. You'll need to choose a password of at least six characters, which then doubles as your lock screen code. Encryption can't be undone without a factory reset of your phone.
It's a feature that's also available on BlackBerry (Encryption under Security in Settings) and Windows Phone, though in the latter case it's currently only for business users and needs to be set at the Exchange server level. If you do set it up, make sure your password is easy for you to remember and impossible for anyone else to guess—without it, you'll need to do a full reset on your device.
Any other tips on how to keep your info safe even when your phone itself isn't? Share them below!
[Header image: David Darko / Shutterstock.com]