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Stop mobile theft and enable phone tracking

Seth Barton
23 Jun 2015
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Your phone is worth far more than the money you spent on it. We explain how to reduce the risks of theft and what to do if the worst happens

Your smartphone may be more valuable than you realise. These devices are not just small chunks of expensive hardware. They also contain access to many of your internet accounts, including your email, online backups and files stored in the cloud. Email accounts are often used as a way to verify your identity when resetting passwords to other accounts so share access to it at your peril.

Treat your phone as if it was as valuable as your house keys, wallet or purse. Keep it near you at all times, do not allow anyone but your closest friends and family to handle it and lock it when you plug it into the power to charge – even when you are at home. Small security measures like this go a long way to improving your data’s security.

Sadly it’s impossible to guarantee that you won’t lose your phone or have it stolen. However, there are ways to protect your accounts and files even if the phone ends up in someone else’s hands. We’ll show you how to track, lock and even wipe your phone remotely and for free.

If you have a reasonably new handset running a version of Android 4 or later then it already comes with the software necessary to track, lock and wipe it. If you want extra features, or your phone runs an older version of Android, then you’ll need a dedicated application like BullGuard Mobile Security.

Protect your handset

Always set your phone to lock phone automatically after a period of time. You can choose to have the phone lock as soon as you press the power button, once it goes to sleep or a specific number of minutes after sleep kicks in. We advise setting the lock to come on after five minutes of sleep. Anything faster can get annoying and more than five minutes is risky.

Go to Settings and choose Security. You’ll find the lock times under the option called ‘Automatically lock’.

If you don’t set a Screen lock option, which can be a PIN, password, pattern or facial recognition, then most of the following tips won’t help you. Setting a screen lock is an absolute minimum security measure. If you have this set to ‘none’ or slide then your phone is not safe.

Passwords are better than patterns because they are harder to break and it is often possible to see what pattern someone uses by looking over their shoulder or even checking the greasy marks on the screen. PINs are an acceptable option but are not as secure as passwords.

The facial recognition option that comes with devices running Android 4 and later is fun and can sometimes be convenient (when it works) but we’ve seen cases where it’s been defeated by someone who looks totally different to the phone’s owner. In any case you’ll need to set a password or other method to act as a backup should facial recognition fail, which it can do due to bad lighting or if the user-facing camera application crashes.

You can also encrypt your phone, which makes very little difference to how you use it on a daily basis but makes recovering data from a locked phone very hard for the bad guys. See below for details.

BullGuard Mobile Antitheft

BullGuard Mobile Security’s Antitheft options let you find, lock and wipe your phone remotely

Find your phone

If you think your lost phone may be nearby you can call it from another phone and find it by listening out for its ring tone. However, if you don’t have a second phone, or your mobile is set to silent mode, then this obviously won’t work. You can use Android Device Manager (https://www.google.com/android/devicemanager) or a security application like BullGuard Mobile Security to force it to sound a loud alarm, even if the phone is set to silent. Log into https://msm.bullguard.com using the account you registered when installing it and click the Scream Locate button on the toolbar.

BullGuard Mobile Alarm

If your phone is lost nearby have it make a loud noise so you can find it easily

If you can’t hear the phone it may be somewhere further afield. The Android Device Manager and BullGuard Mobile Security both let you log into a website and find the phone using a combination of GPS and WiFi location techniques. It is very accurate and knowing where your phone is will help you decide whether or not to lock or wipe the device, as described below.

If you are using BullGuard Mobile Security log into the website and choose the Antitheft option then click the Locate button on the top toolbar.

BullGuard Mobile Location

Use your phone’s GPS and WiFi to discover its location

Remote locking

You can lock your phone remotely using an extra strong password. This is useful if you’ve located your phone using GPS and found that it’s still on your desk at work. It’s also a good option if your phone turns out to be at your least-trusted friend’s house, particularly if they know your regular password.

Using a stronger password than you use on a daily basis will make it harder for someone to access your phone. The Android Device Manager also allows you to display a customisable message on the screen. If your phone has been truly lost, or you suspect a thief has it, you can make the phone display an appeal for its return, possibly with contact details and even the promise of a reward. You can always wipe the phone (see below) later if too much time passes and you give up on seeing the phone again.

Even if you don’t wipe it yourself a thief could simply restore your phone to its factory settings manually, which means that they won’t have access to your data but they do take possession of an expensive phone that doesn’t belong to them. Currently there is nothing you can do to stop this.

Remote wiping

You may choose to take matters into your own hands and wipe the device yourself. It won’t stop the thief from using or re-selling your phone but it does ensure that your data is no longer available to plunder.

Log into the management website and click the Wipe icon. As soon as the device has access to the internet it will automatically reset itself to factory settings and delete your files and account details.

Encrypt your phone

If the phone has access to the internet then the remote locking and wiping should work well. However, what happens if its batteries run out before you can send it the commands? Alternatively the phone might not have a signal or access to a WiFi network. In such cases a thief with some technical knowledge could hack into the phone and access your files and you’d have no way to prevent them.

If you encrypt your device, however, you place a significant barrier in the way of someone hacking your accounts. It is well beyond the skills of the average thief to crack Android’s encryption.

Open Settings, choose Security and choose Encrypt phone. This process can take some time, particularly if you have a lot of files on your phone. It is wise to plug in the phone before starting to encrypt.

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