Smartphone security tips

A smartphone can contain a lot of information that its owner would rather keep private. But 39 percent of the more than 100 million American adult smartphone owners fail to take even minimal security measures, such as using a screen lock, backing up data or installing an app to locate a missing phone or remotely wipe its data, according to Consumer Reports’ Annual State of the Net survey.

At least 7.1 million smartphones were irreparably damaged, lost or stolen and not recovered last year, Consumer Reports projects. Yet 69 percent of smartphone users hadn’t backed up their data, including photos and contacts. Just 22 percent had installed software that could locate their lost phone.

The report revealed that though most smartphone users haven’t suffered serious losses because of their phone, there are wireless threats that merit concern. Among them: malicious software. Last year, 5.6 million smartphone users experienced undesired behavior on their phones, such as the sending of unauthorized text messages or the accessing of accounts without their permission, Consumer Reports projects. Those symptoms are indicative of the presence of malicious software.

The location tracking feature that all smartphones have can also leave users vulnerable to wireless threats. One percent of smartphone users told surveyors that they or a person in their household had been harassed or harmed after someone used tracking technology to pinpoint their phone’s location. Consumer Reports also projects that at least 5.1 million preteens use their own smartphones. In doing so, they may unwittingly disclose personal information or risk their safety.

A smartphone can be quite secure if users take a few basic precautions, Consumer Reports found. Those precautions include:

Using a strong pass code. A four-digit one, which 23 percent of users reported using, is better than nothing. But on Android phones and iPhones earlier than the iPhone 5, a thief using the right software can crack such a code in 20 minutes, according to Charlie Miller, security engineer for Twitter. A longer code that includes letters and symbols is far stronger.

Install apps cautiously. Malicious apps may not lurk around every corner, but they’re out there and can be tricky to spot. For example, Consumer Reports projects that 1.6 million users had been fooled into installing what seemed to be a well-known brand-name app but was actually a malicious imposter. Users of iPhones have one source for apps, Apple’s App Store, where there have been few reports of malicious apps. If you use an Android-based phone, you can get apps from numerous sources, so stick with the two most reputable: Google Play and Amazon’s Appstore.

Be alert to insecure Wi-Fi. A projected 13 million users engaged in financial transactions at hot spots in hotels, retail stores and airports last year. Before using any app to do business at a hot spot, users should check the app’s privacy policy to see whether it secures wireless transmissions of such data. Otherwise, they may disclose sensitive information to a nearby criminal.

Turn off location tracking. Disable it except when it’s needed, such as for driving directions. Only one in three smartphone owners surveyed by Consumer Reports had turned it off at times during the previous year.

Clean out your old phone. Before you sell or recycle your phone, remove any memory card, restore its factory settings and make sure all sensitive info is deleted.

2013, Consumers Union Inc.

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