One of the most common questions in my household is “do you know where my phone is?” Sometimes it’s easy to locate but if not, and my wife’s phone is nearby, I’ll simply call it and hope I hear it ring. That won’t help if the ringer is turned off, but fortunately, Apple and
Google have websites and apps that can cause your phone to ring even if it’s set on silent. These sites can also show where your phone is, which came in very handy one day when we used it to discover that my wife had dropped her phone in a parking lot a couple of miles away from where we were. The on-screen map led us directly to the phone, which thankfully, was still on the ground and not broken. A friend of mine once used Apple’s find-my-phone feature to locate his phone in a New York city cab. He called it, the driver answered and brought it to him. My friend tipped him generously.
If you’re not lucky enough to find your missing phone, you can use the same apps to display a number on the lock screen that someone can call if they find it. You can also remotely erase the contents of the phone to protect your security. The phone will be erased as soon as it gets a signal.
If your phone is erased, or if you don’t find it, your data — including all your photos — are likely to be recoverable assuming you opted to back it up to the cloud. Both Apple and Google can automatically backup your phone and allow you to restore it to your existing device or a new device. I sometimes use this feature if I get a new phone, but it can be a life saver if your phone is lost, stolen or destroyed. You can find instructions for both iOS and Android at connectsafely.org/backuprestore/.
Other ways to protect your phone
In addition to knowing what to do if your phone is missing, there are things you can do to protect your privacy and security. Some of these suggestions come from a useful article in PC World, “8 simple ways to protect your smartphone from hackers.”
First, make sure you have a passcode (typically a numeric PIN) and, if possible, a way to unlock your phone with face or touch ID. All phones let you assign a numeric PIN number, but make sure it’s not obvious like 1234, your birthdate, street number or part of your phone number. Of course, it should be a number you can remember, but if your phone supports it, also assign a fingerprint or facial recognition, which makes it a lot easier to unlock your phone. If your phone has a fingerprint reader, you can register more than one finger. I use my thumb and index finger on both hands so that I can easily unlock it no matter which hand it’s in.
PC World also recommends you not store passwords on your phone, but consider using a password manager like LastPass, which can securely store your passwords and enter them into websites or apps.
Another security tip is two-factor authentication (2FA) which requires you to enter a code in addition to your username and password. While nothing is 100% hacker proof, 2FA goes a long way to protect you. Most 2FA systems will send a text message to your phone with a code you type in if you’re accessing a site or an app from a new device or browser. That way, it doesn’t bother you unnecessarily but makes it much harder for a remote hacker to get into your device or app. Some services also support authentication apps like Authy, Google Authenticator, Lastpass or Microsoft Authenticator, which generate a code on the fly and doesn’t rely on your mobile phone number.
It’s also important to keep your apps, operating system and browsers up-to-date so you always have the latest security fixes. This is important because, once a vulnerability is widely known by hackers, devices and apps that aren’t up-to-date are especially vulnerable. Most devices allow you to configure your apps to be updated automatically so you don’t have to worry about it, but even the automatic systems sometimes lag behind, so I like to occasionally do a manual update just to be sure.
Make sure you’re only getting apps from official app stores like Google Play or the Apple App Store. Apple vets apps before they’re allowed in the store, but Google takes down apps if they’re reported to be dangerous. I can’t necessarily say the same about apps that are “side loaded” from other sources. I also like to read some reviews before I download apps I don’t know about or at least look at their overall numeric ratings. If the rating isn’t high, I read some reviews to find out why.
Physical safety of your phone
In addition to the digital precautions, make sure your phone has a case to protect it against breakage. Even an inexpensive and lightweight bumper case will offer some protection if it’s dropped. And know where your phone is. Putting it down on a table, especially if people you don’t know and trust are around, can not only lead to loss or theft but also misuse. I’ve heard horror stories of people picking up someone’s phone and using it to send nasty messages to others or, in the case of domestic abuse, make it so that they can track the phone.
That phone in your pocket may be the most powerful and all-knowing piece of technology ever invented, with access to an incredible amount of information, including your location, contacts, calendar, call records, email, text message and much more, which is reason enough to keep it as secure as possible.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.