Smartphone Identity Theft, and How to Avoid It

smart phone thief

Your smartphone might not be as safe as you think…

Identity theft has increased by 13% since 2010; and with dozens of apps requesting personal information, and the ever-present danger of lost or stolen phones, many experts tie this increase to the greater penetration of smartphones. Most people are careful to protect email passwords and secured wireless networks, and try to watch what they click online—but for whatever reason, the culture of caution hasn’t translated to smartphones, and 7% of smartphone users were the victims of some form of identity theft in 2011. Here are a few of the most serious ways your phone might be hemorrhaging your personal data—and what you can do about it.

Questionable apps
Whenever you download an app, you should know exactly what information that app will try to access; and if you don’t absolutely trust the source of the app, there’s no way to be certain. The iTunes store and Google Play have policies that filter out most deceptive and intrusive apps, but they don’t catch all the offenders, and their privacy credentials aren’t flawless either, so the easiest way to stay safe is to minimize the number of apps you download. Before you download an app, check the user reviews and the number of downloads for the app. If the app only has a few user reviews, don’t trust them—any developer can at least get their grandmothers and spouses to say something nice about their app. Stick with apps that have been put through their paces, with at least a couple hundred user ratings.

Pickpocketed or misplaced phones

This is one of the easiest ways for thieves to make off with bank information; a phone left on the subway, or palmed from an unattended purse, can be a gold mine of your personal financial information. If you keep sensitive data of any kind on your smartphone, you can also be the victim of extortion if a thief gets his or her hands on it. This can include personal, intimate communications, but it can also include business emails and proprietary information. If you use your smartphone on the job in any capacity, you likely have information on the phone that you’re obligated to protect.
The solution for this problem is mostly about attitude. At minimum, you should password-protect your phone, but beyond that, consider clearing active logins at any sites that have your credit card information. If you’re a heavy smartphone user, your phone likely contains more sensitive information than your wallet, so treat it that way: if you misplace your smartphone in public, get in touch with your bank right away to freeze your account until you find it. Check out these options to deal with lost phones—you can remotely change your phone’s password, set off the alarm, backup your data to your home computer, or wipe your phone back to its original factory settings if you’ve concluded there’s no hope of recovering it.

Buying and selling used phones
If you want to sell your used phone, do a little homework on how to perform a factory reset, and check to see if personal information might remain even after the reset. Android phones in particular have a noted risk of hanging on to personal data, even after the phone has been completely wiped. Also, buy used cell phones from an authorized dealer, as private parties may try to maintain remote access to their phone, even after selling it.

Conventional online threats
As the role of smartphones has expanded to include almost all the functions of a personal computer, they’ve become just as vulnerable to malware and online scams—but the average user’s security precautions haven’t changed to match. If you use your smartphone to open emails from any source you don’t recognize, or visit unfamiliar websites, think about installing antivirus software, and scan periodically for malware. Protect your phone’s password just as you would your bank PIN, and never volunteer contact information to a source you don’t trust.

Julia Peterson is a writer for, a popular website that provides up-to-date news, detailed commentary, and unbiased reviews on cell phones and related topics. Julia resides in Galveston, Texas in a cozy little house in the country with her husband, young son, and their Labrador retriever, Darby.