Smartphones have become our home away from home, letting us transfer funds, skim news headlines, or reserve a table at a favorite restaurant—all from wherever we happen to be.
But all that convenience comes with a price, say privacy experts. Like PCs and laptops, smartphones store a lot of data about you—your identity, contact list, files, emails, texts, and passwords—making your life an “open book” to data thieves if you aren’t careful, cautions John Sileo, founder of ThinkLikeaSpy.com , a Denver-based identity theft prevention company.
His view is backed by a study  that involved “losing” phones in five major cities. The phones contained photos, social networking and financial (banking) apps, and what appeared to the finders to be business files (including a “salary spreadsheet”). Over seven days, the majority of phone finders tried accessing the phone’s data. Of those, 72% tried to access the photos, and 43% tried to access online banking. Only half tried to return the phone.
The first line of defense, says Sileo, is password-protecting your smartphone (using the settings menu) and having the screen lock feature enabled to freeze functionality after a few minutes of inactivity.
If you have an iPhone, you can download the free Find My iPhone app , which allows you to remotely wipe your data, and lock and trace the phone. McAfee Mobile Security offers the same features for Androids.
In addition to physically securing your device, be aware of high-tech attacks—viruses, malware and spyware. Common scenarios involve “work for hire” emails or fake advertisements posted on the Internet. When the user clicks on a link in the email or ad, they’re connected to a website that pushes malware onto their device, allowing the hacker to access.
The loss can be extensive. Explains Sileo: “The technology that keeps apps separate on your smartphone or tablet doesn’t separate them out into private sandboxes, meaning that one app can read the juicy details stored in the other without much difficulty.”
To protect yourself, keep your phone’s software up-to-date and install anti-virus and anti-malware software. These range from free apps to subscription products. And before you download any app, seek out reviews on the developer/company who publishes it and understand the permissions you are giving to download the application.
Also, be aware of applications that enable Geo-location, an application that tracks your location. Criminals can use this application to monitor your movements and plan illegal entry to your home or business, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3 ), a task force that includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center.
Smartphone users should be cautious of using unsecured networks (like the one at your favorite coffee shop). These free Wi-Fi hot spots can be trolled by data sniffers, which can capture data (like your passwords) being transmitted over the network. If you stick to your carrier’s network, you’ll probably have nothing to worry about, says Sileo.
Finally, if you sell your device or trade it in, be sure to wipe the data (reset it to factory default) to avoid leaving yourself at risk.
Editor’s Note: If you think you have been the victim of an online breach or scam, please file a complaint at www.IC3.gov .