“Take my car, it’ll be less of a hassle” (What to do if your Smart-Phone’s stolen)

So, you’re walking downtown at night.  The weather’s nice and there are people everywhere.  You have five crisp new $100 bills in your hand. (don’t ask why you are carrying so much money in your hand, you just do) You’re holding five hundos and everyone can see them.  You’re nervous. But that’s good because you’re paying attention to your surroundings.  Every fiber of your being is watching around to see if anyone is coming towards you.  Your spidey senses (yes, in this scenario you have spidey senses) are on high alert.

You can actually feel who is behind you and how close they are.  Most importantly, you have a grip on that money like you’ve never had.  Nothing is gonna pry those bills from your grasp, except maybe a pit-bull. So…….
….when you walk down the street gazing into your phone, why do let yourself become oblivious to the world around you?…

‘Twas last week when Mrs. Consumer Courage and I were downtown walking around.  There was a basketball game about to start so the streets were filled with people.  Since it was 65 degrees AND the beginning of November, nobody was in a hurry to get where they were going.  We saw two (!) cell-phone robberies.  They both occurred in the same fashion:  a woman was looking at her cell phone when a group of teenagers grabbed the phone from her hands and took off.  Two seconds.  That’s all it took.  One of the women was in the middle of a crowd, the other was somewhat alone.  Unfortunately, once someone gets your phone and a three step head-start, there isn’t much you can do.  Giving chase IS an option.  But, when you catch them, how do you tell which one stole your phone? We’ll admit that we didn’t know that stealing cell phones was actually a thing.  Now that we know, what can we do about it?

What you’re risking

Used to be: if you lost your cell phone the only thing that you had to do without was the ability to call someone until you got to the cellular store the next day.  Now, with the advent of the smart phone, much of your life is contained in that little box.   Your e-mails; your contact list; every picture you’ve taken since your nephew’s wedding in 2009, many apps that “remember” your credit card and password so you can make a purchase quickly; other apps that will open instantly because they save your password…way too much personal information to think about.

You can do a lot to prevent someone from taking your phone: don’t take the phone out of your pocket if you’re in public; don’t walk away from your grocery cart if your phone is lying on top of the cereal; don’t leave it on the table in a restaurant and look away; don’t leave the house.  But, thieves are very resourceful.

Is there a Market for stolen phones?

Dig this article about teens who steal phones from one tourist spot in San Francisco and then sell them at ANOTHER tourist spot in San Francisco the same night.   Seems like no matter how much you can get for a stolen phone, there will always be a threat of this happening.  So far Minnesota and California have laws that require the cell phone companies to insert software that will let the owner kill the phone if it gets stolen.  (If you can kill the phone, thieves won’t bother taking them)

Editor’s note that, YES, you should keep reading: While this post is written from the perspective of the iPhone, most of the features described here (screen lock, find my phone, getting your provider to shut off the phone, etc.) are offered by the retailers of the other major smart phones.

Let’s look at what you can do to protect yourself if this does happen…

Things to do when the phone is new (Techie-based preparations)

Luckily, there are ways to make your phone unusable to anyone but you. (If you can’t make it impossible to steal your phone, you sure can make it harder for the thief to use.)  The iPhone has several built-in features that are designed to frustrate the bad guys.  You can make the screen lock if it’s been unused for a certain period of time; have the phone automatically erase if you plug in too many incorrect unlock codes; track the phone as long as it is on and connected to a network.

  • Screen lock: this is the annoying 4 digit (more on some phones) code that you have to enter into the phone every time you use it.  If you think it’s annoying to hit a four-digit code every time you dial, try and imagine how annoying it will be if someone snatches your phone and can get to your private information because you did NOT password-protect it.
    • What it does: tells your phone to lock the screen after a short period of non-use.  The time it takes to freeze the screen can be as long as five minutes.  But that might give the crooks time to get away and THEN start messing with your phone. Ours is set at one minute. Since it will take them at least that long to get away, we hope this will make it that much harder for them to have any access to our phone.
    • Can’t they just change the code once they have the phone? No they can’t.  The iPhone requires you to key in the four-digit code, just to change the code.  Unless they have the code, they won’t be able to stop it from freezing.  If the stolen phone EVER locks, they’ll have to break the code to unlock it.
    • Setting the time-limit on iPhone: Settings > General > auto-lock
    • Creating your own four-digit code on iPhone: Settings > Touch ID & Passcode.
  • Erase Data after ten (10) incorrect attempts to unlock: if they try to guess at your code and they’re persistent, the only thing they’ll do is erase your phone.  The downside to this is that if you try to drunk-dial someone at 3:00 a.m. to tell them that you’re “so over them and they can kiss off” you might end up erasing your own phone by mistake.
    • Enable Data-erase on iPhone: Settings > Touch ID & Passcode > Erase Data

Author’s note of disassociation: To the parents of Consumer Courage who are no doubt reading this post, I have no idea what a “drunk-dial” is. I overheard someone talking about it and thought it sounded funny.  I don’t even know if it’s a thing.

  • Find iPhone: This is a separate app that comes already loaded on the iPhone.  It uses the phone’s internal GPS to locate your phone if it is lost.  The very second your phone gets turned on, the Find iPhone app will show you where the phone is located on a map.  There are some limitations. You have to access the app from another phone (or from the web) and the phone has to be turned on. (if the thief turned it off right away, Find My Phone will be unable to locate it.  But, if the phone is on, you can find out where it is (the APP even puts the phone on a map so you can see how to get there)
    • If they stay in the area and you have a friend close by with a smart phone, you might be able to show the nearest officer where the bad guy is.  (The locator is not hyper-specific though. If the bad guy is on the 23rd floor of a building, the map will just show you the address to the front door)
    • Find My Phone will even make your phone give off a loud sound when it is located.  (If you think you are close, you can make the sound repeat by signing out and then signing right back in to Find My Phone)  If the bad guys did not turn off your phone, you can play the funniest game of Marco Polo ever.
    • You don’t have to be logged in and watching Find My Phone for it to work.  The APP will tell you the last location the phone was used if it gets turned on while you are sleeping.

Editor’s reality check: if this happens and you can locate your phone, for the love of mercy, find a police officer to go there with you.  You’re not Rambo (or even half as tough) Do NOT confront anybody who took your phone….just don’t.

Since you need your Apple ID to turn on Find My Phone, you also need the Apple ID to turn it off. That way the bad guys cannot turn it off, unless they have your apple ID.  Setting up “Find My Phone” is probably one of the first things that you should do when you start using your phone.  (As an aside you can use the Find My Phone APP to tell if the iPhone you bought on e-bay for $38.00 was stolen from somebody else)

Things to do to help yourself (Human-based preparations)

OK fine, I can freeze and maybe find the phone if it gets taken, how do I make sure it does NOT get stolen in the first place?

Keep your phone in its hiding place while you are walking on the street.  Resist the temptation to look at it every 10 seconds and for heaven’s sake do NOT walk around with the phone in your hand.  You might think it’s secure. But remember: the people trying to steal smart phones are looking around for people who are carrying their phone IN THEIR HANDS and staring at them as if the secret to life is about to be revealed on the screen.  Think of it this way: You’re not taking a call while you’re walking on the street downtown; you’re taking a call AND putting $500 in cash into your hand for everyone to see.  (Here are some suggestions for things to do while you are walking instead of looking at your phone: look at a tree; appreciate the architecture; smile at somebody; talk to the people you’re with)

If someone does take your phone (or anything else that they shouldn’t) Scream as soon and as loud as you can!  Since the getaway is very quick, you only have a few seconds to tell everyone around you that the people running away from you just took your phone.  Managing to yell “Ahhhhh.  They took my phone!” can tell everyone to help while they can.

Write down the particulars for your phone.  Each phone has a several numbers that distinguish it from other phones.  Everyone knows (or has a pretty good idea) that their phone has a unique serial number. But few people know that there are other numbers (the International Mobile Station Equipment Identity or IMEI and the Mobile Equipment Identifier or MEID) are also unique to your phone. These are written on the innards of the phone and are impossible to alter.  Take these numbers down and keep them separate from your phone.  (Take a screen shot, e-mail it to yourself and print it off at home) The good thing about these numbers is that your phone company has a record of them.  If you want them to disable your phone, this is how they can do it.  (Beware: This step cannot be undone.)
Locate the IMEI and MEID on the iPhone by going to:  Settings > General > About.

All phones have a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card that contains data about the person who is authorized to use the phone. The SIM card tells your company that you are the one who paid for the phone and lets them know that you have their permission to use their network.  Without your SIM card, your particular phone will not have service.  The bad guys certainly know this and know that all they need is a new SIM card to make a stolen phone work.  You can prevent them from seeing or using your personal information. But, if they have one of these little doo-dads (which cost about 5 bucks) they can sell your phone as if it’s just a used phone.  That is why it’s important to have the ability to make your phone company disable that exact phone.  If they use the IMEI and MEID to disable your phone, nothing – not even a magical SIM card that was touched by angels – will make it work.

Make a list of all of your APPs & Passwords

This one’s huge.  If, for some reason the bad guys can get past all of these systems and get inside your phone, they’ll have access to all of the APPs that you’ve downloaded.  One of the great things about that concert ticket APP is that it remembers your credit card from those theater tickets you bought when you downloaded it 2 years ago.  Not only do YOU not have to re-enter your credit card every time you buy great seats; the crook who snatched your phone doesn’t have to either!  If they know what they’re doing (and they somehow get in) they can buy a whole bunch of stuff using the credit card number that you keyed into your phone.  True, the rules for credit cards say that you won’t be on the hook for purchases that you didn’t authorize.  But, why not save yourself the trouble of having to dispute each and every charge separately?

You should log onto the web as soon as you get home and go to the home pages for the apps that are on your phone.  Once you’re there, all you’ll have to do is change your password.  At that point, whoever has your phone will be instantly “logged out” of each of those APPs, preventing them from buying anything.  (Speaking of APPs, there are a couple that specialize in creating a file that keeps track of each of your APPs and the individual passwords that you use – Last pass and Dashlane.  We’re not recommending them one way or the other. But, if you have a ton of apps – and don’t have the passwords all stored in a safe place – they might save you.)

It happened! (What to do AFTER your phone gets stolen)

  1. Scream at the top of your lungs “Hey, those guys right there stole my phone! Help!”
  2. Try “Find My Phone” from your friend’s smart-phone and see it’s in the area.
  3. Call the cops.  Making a police report is important for two reasons: 1) If the “Find my Phone” app dings and tells you that the bad guys are using your phone, the cops will have a place to go to and probable cause to start asking questions; and 2) if there is an insurance claim to be made for the cost of replacing your phone or if there were charges made using any of your accounts, the first thing anybody is going to say is “can you send me a copy of the police report.”
  4. If you want to see what your phone’s manufacturer has to say, Google “My [name of the phone] was stolen.” One of the first hits should be the My-phone-was-stolen page from your phone manufacturer’s website.  (Here is the one for Apple, which includes their “lost mode” and how to access it)  Consumer Reports has great advice for all three phases of this problem – Before, during and after.
  5. Get to the net and change the password on each application that is live on your phone.  (If you can open an APP on your phone without needing to key in your password the APP if “live”)  This includes your mail.  Chances are that anyone who steals your phone will not think to go to your mail APP and start sending the “Help, I went to North Korea with Dennis Rodman and could really use some money wired to me” e-mails to your contacts. But, who wants to take that chance?
  6. Lastly, call your cellular provider and let them know what happened.  Seriously consider having them zap your phone using the IMEI and MEID numbers.

Now go enjoy the outside, keep your phone in your pants and Hey, Hey, HEY….Let’s be careful out there.

Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who never stole a cell phone – but may have been mistook for somebody who threw an egg once)