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Lost smartphones a target for thieves

By Claes Bell ·
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Posted: 5 pm ET

If you're wondering why some bank customers are reluctant to adopt mobile banking, look no further than a study released this month by computer security firm Symantec.

The study began with Symantec personnel "losing" 50 smartphones in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and the San Francisco Bay area. The smartphones were equipped with special tracking software that allowed researchers to find out what the people who found the phones attempted to do with them. They monitored what apps the finders attempted to open, what websites they attempted to access, and where they took the phone physically.

The results can't be comforting for those who keep and access sensitive financial information and conduct financial business on their smartphones. Here are some points from the study.

  • An attempt to access an online banking app was observed on 43 percent of the devices.
  • A "Saved Passwords" file was accessed on 57 percent of the phones.
  • Sixty-six percent of the devices showed attempts to click through the login or password reset screens (where a login page was presented with username and password fields that were prefilled, suggesting that the account could be accessed by simply clicking on the "login" button).
  • Of the 50 devices, the owner only received 25 offers to help, despite the fact that the owner's phone number and email address were clearly marked in the contacts app.

While the sample size of the study was relatively small, it does suggest that if you're using technologies like mobile banking, mobile payments and person-to-person payment apps and you lose your smartphone, it's very possible the person who finds it will attempt to use them to steal from you.

That's probably why, when Google introduced its Google Wallet service, the company recommended customers who lose their smartphones cancel any credit or debit cards connected to the service. It also explains why a lot of mobile banking apps don't have the ability to actually move money unless it's a transfer between a customer's own preregistered accounts.

If, like me, you think the convenience of mobile banking is worth the risk, there are a couple of things you can do to protect yourself. No. 1 is to password protect your phone. While a locked phone can still be hacked by a computer-savvy thief, it's less likely a run-of-the-mill criminal, or simply a person who can't resist the temptation to access your accounts, will be able to access your smartphone's financial information.

If you use your mobile browser to log in to financial sites, I'd also counsel against saying "yes" to requests to remember your password, and be sure to select the "public computer" option when signing in.

Does this study make you less likely to conduct financial business on your smartphone? Are there any other tips you think can help protect your financial information on a lost smartphone?

Follow me on Twitter: @ClaesBell.

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Suzee Quince
April 04, 2012 at 5:36 pm

My Motorola Cliq smartphone runs the battery dead in about 15 hours (Bluetooth on, but not GPS or wi-fi), and I'm largely just using it as a phone. My old Motorola RAZR flip-phone lasts 4-5 days with Bluetooth on, it still rings calendar alarms even when it's turned off, and it's not a target for thieves. I'm about ready to switch.

John Z
March 21, 2012 at 8:13 pm

Dont request remember password that is open to anyone that has it. How stupid can you be. All my computers require password to turn on. Had a breakin at my home and my Desktop computer stolen. Without password probably could not open. All accounts on it password protected with no remember password. Also never use same User ID and password for more then one account. Now lock up computer if away for more then a day.

March 21, 2012 at 6:20 pm

I thought the article was going to be different. I have had a smartphone stolen before. I am in my 20's so I use it alot but I don't do half of the things listed above. The most I had on there was alarms, calender reminders, and lots of photos. My biggest concern was having to replace my phone. Those phones are expensive to replace. It is easy for theives to wipe your phone and make an easy $200-$300 selling them. You on the other hand have foot the bill either the total cost of the the phone or the deductible for insurance.

Little b
March 21, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Really? Transmitting personal and/or financial information using a wireless device? And then to lose said wireless device. Run, don't walk, back to the store where you purchased the replacement device and give it back. Seriously.

Viola Bressan
March 21, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Like Richard, I am old but I have just started using a smart phone.
This article was helpful to me but even I know better than to put this kind of information on my smart phone. I will use it for basic stuff like maps, email and games. I am sure as I have it longer, I will find other uses for it but I will never put financial information in it.

March 21, 2012 at 2:52 pm

This is not worth reading and I am sorry I did. These "tips" are no-brainers, really. No one cares that the author "likes the convenience" of the smartphone because it's not "convenient" it is stupid using it when you know that roughly half of those things are being targeted by thieves. It is the equivalent of standing in a dark alley knowing full well it is a high traffic area for murderers and thieves and then complaining when you get robbed and murdered. As a general rule, never do what everybody else is doing and especially not when using technology that is relatively new because it means that security features are not yet reliably developed. God, I miss critical thinking.

Richard Lippincott
March 21, 2012 at 2:25 pm

I am not a smart phone user - guess I am too old to change. I am concerned about e-check applications when purchasing items. They ask you to fill out an on-line check with your bank and account numbers and then sign it using the cursor. Can't think of a more foolish way to assure your bank account is emptied as rapidly as possible.