August 4, 2013

Smartphone authorities urge users to be proactive against theft

More personal information on phones increases risk when stolen, but some apps can help track them down

An average of at least one cellphone a day is stolen in Columbia, and criminals could be gaining access to a raft of personal data that could compromise victims’ security.

With more adults owning smartphones than ever before, wireless communication authorities are encouraging consumers to be conscientious of their devices, which often store information such as personal accounts and family pictures.

“We want consumers in South Carolina and across this nation to outsmart smartphone thieves,” said Mignon Clyburn, chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commissions.

In 2012, about 455 cellphones were reported stolen, according to Columbia Police Department records. In 2013, as of mid-July, about 232 cellphones had been reported stolen.

Thieves target smartphones because the devices have a high resale value, Clyburn said. But as cellphones become more like wallets – holding credit card numbers, personal contacts and family photos – victims could be put at greater risk.

“Just treat it like you would your wallet and your personal information,” said Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Karen Schulz.

She recommended not leaving a smartphone in the front seat of a car for someone to see or on a bench at a gym.

In fact, about 12 of the 30 phones stolen at the University of South Carolina from July 2012 to July 2013 were unattended or unsecured at the university’s two recreational facilities, according to Jeff Stensland, a spokesman for USC.

Cellphone owners need to be as responsible with their phones as they are with other types of equipment, said Jamie Hastings, vice president of external and state affairs for CTIA The Wireless Association, which represents the wireless communication industry.

“You need to educate yourself as a consumer to be part of the solution,” Hastings said.

Those solutions include putting passwords on phones to lock the device from unauthorized users. Cellphone users can also be proactive against theft by downloading apps that can track a stolen device, such as Lookout and Find My iPhone.

Find My iPhone allows a user to log in to their iCloud account from a computer and then access the app, which shows where the iPhone is on a map. If the phone is turned off, then it will show them where it was last located. The application also allows a user to remotely erase the information on their phone and also sound a noise that can help locate a lost phone.

An international database to reduce cellphone theft was created in April 2012 in a joint effort by law enforcement, wireless providers, CTIA and the FCC. The database enables providers to disable the phones, which reduces the resale value, according to the FCC.

It also helps to be proactive, Clyburn said. She recommended writing down and storing important information about the cellphone, such as the make model, serial number and device identification number.

“Smartphones have a lot of personal information on them so we really do encourage our customers to be very responsible with those phones,” Schulz said.

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