11 Terrifying Things That Can Happen When Someone Steals Your Phone (And How You Can Protect It)

by Paul Michael on 29 July 2014 1 comment

A phone used to be a phone. Now, many of us live our entire lives through our phones. It's how we check our bank balances, organize our schedules, send emails and texts, and pay our bills. Most of us have hundreds, if not thousands, of photos and videos on our phones. They also house sensitive personal information that an identity thief would just love to get his or her hands on. In short, it's no longer a phone… it's our life.

So when a phone is lost, or worse, stolen, we have every reason to panic. Here are 10 horrible things that can happen if your phone is stolen.

1. Your Bank Accounts Could Be Wiped Out

In an experiment conducted by Symantec, 50 smartphones were intentionally "lost." On 43% of those phones, attempts were made to open the online banking apps. If you have the "save user name" option engaged, the thief only needs to guess your password. For some that will be easy enough to do — your phone gives out a lot of clues and if you have a guessable password you're in real trouble. That money can be transferred to another account, and you're left with nothing. The bank covers misuse of credit and debit cards, but hacked accounts are another story entirely.

2. Your Personal Photos Could Be Leaked

There is no shame in having "sensitive" photos of yourself or other people you are intimate with, on your phone. But those photos are for your eyes only. If someone were to access those photos on your phone, they could be uploaded to the web in seconds. It happens to celebrities all the time, but you don't hear about it happening to the public because the press doesn't have a story in it. However, it's all too common for thieves to steal those photos and spread them far and wide, which could make for a very embarrassing situation, or worse, as the next point will dive into. They could also blackmail you for a lot of money.

3. You Could Lose Your Job

If inappropriate photos of you or your friends are leaked, it could quickly lead to a firing. It was obviously not your intention to let those photos get out, but that's nothing your employer will care about. If you have in any way sullied your reputation, you have also put a black mark against the company you work for. In some instances, the company won't care. But if you work in a business that requires its employees to be clean cut and professional at all times, you could see the dreaded pink slip. Even password-protected folders can be hacked.

4. You Could Lose Your Friends

Thieves are not exactly upstanding moral crusaders. They will have no problem messing with your life just for the sake of it, and that includes texting and calling people in your contacts list. There have been cases of thieves sending profane and rude texts to contacts, just for the fun of it. It's a laugh for them, but it could take more than a quick "it wasn't me" to mend those relationships.

5. Your Social Accounts Could Be Hacked

Your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram channels are usually logged in automatically. If a thief has access to them, he or she could easily make your life very difficult by posting on your behalf. Suddenly, you've gone from being a nice person with nice posts, to a lurid or vicious individual hell bent on offending as many people as possible. Soon, your friends and family are unfriending you quicker than they can hit send. Employers also have access to your social channels, and it could reflect very badly upon you. You may have no choice but to shut down your accounts and start from scratch. But you'll have a lot of explaining to do first.

6. Your Identity Can Be Stolen

You have a lot of personal information on your phone. Some people I have talked to even keep pictures of their driver's license and SS card in their phone, just in case they need the numbers. Well, that's not a great idea. Using just the information you have in emails, photos, and other files, a skilled identity thief could have bank accounts set up in your name before you know what's hit you.

7. Expensive Calls Could Be Made

How much does it cost you to dial international numbers on your phone? You probably don't have that information close at hand because you don't do it too often. Well, it can cost from just 1 cent per minute, and over $3 per minute, depending on the country you call. A 60-minute call to Afghanistan on AT&T will set you back $183. You can see how that can soon add up to thousands if you don't take the time to act.

8. Thousands of Dollars of Purchases Can Be Racked Up

You likely have apps like eBay and Amazon on your phone, as well as other shopping sites. Usually, you are automatically logged in to those sites, and if you do a lot of purchasing, you may very well have one click purchases set up. Once the thief realizes this, they can start shopping to their heart's content. They can set up a new shipping address, probably to an address that can't be traced back to them, and can also do a lot of instant downloads. They could even be spiteful, and just start making massive purchases just to mess with you and your life.

9. You Could Be Charged for Overages

Not everyone is on an unlimited plan. If you have a set number of minutes, texts and data every month, the thief could quickly eat those up and start costing you money every time they make a call, send a text or surf the web. Those small charges can soon add up to hundreds of dollars.

10. You Could Go To Jail

Now, this is unlikely. But if you work for an employer that gives you access to some very confidential information, and that information is on your phone, you could get in big trouble. Despite the fact that you had no intention of leaking this information, if it gets out because of your stolen phone the consequences could be severe, especially if you work for the government. Even if you work for a private employer, you may have signed a Nondisclosure Agreement, and this could violate it. So if you have photographs of highly sensitive data or product designs on your phone, you might want to delete them, or transfer them to a very secure location.

11. You Could Help Commit a Crime

It's quite possible that the phone was stolen from you for a specific reason, and not just a random theft. The thief may know that you work at a certain place, a bank or jewelers, and would text the boss or owner from your phone asking for information. Even worse, it may be someone looking to abduct a friend or colleague of yours, using texts or social media apps. Most of us communicate by those methods these days, imagine receiving a text from a friend asking to meet them somewhere. What would happen if you turned up and it was not your friend waiting for you, but someone wanting to do you harm? Get the picture? Yes, it's not only possible, it's easy to do.

So, What Can You Do to Protect Yourself?

Quite simply, you should prepare for the worst right now by taking steps that can protect you if your phone is stolen, or at least minimize the damage.

Password Protect Your Phone

Yes, it's a hassle. The latest data says we check our phones over 100 times a day. Having to enter a PIN every time we want to check email or send a text may be annoying, but it takes only a second or two and makes it tough for an average thief to get past the unlock screen. By entering a PIN, you will probably make the thief do a hard reset on your phone to make it usable. In that case, you have simply lost a device, not the sensitive information it holds. And if you can, use a PIN or lock code that is not easily guessable. 0000 and 1234 are all too common.

Install "Seek and Destroy" Apps

In conjunction with a PIN, you should definitely invest in an app that will help you find your phone, or wipe the data remotely. There are way too many to list here, so check the ratings and the number of downloads (you want a high number for both). Once installed, it will not only help you find your phone if you misplace it, but it can also wipe the data on it with a few simple steps.

Set Up Two-Step Authorization

As so much is tied to Google, and your phone, it's a good idea to add an additional layer of security. Google's two-step authorization process means that if one of your accounts is compromised, you need access to another to verify it.

Register With an Identity Theft Protection Service

There a several out there, including LifeLock and Protect My ID, but your own bank may very well offer a service just like those for less money. They aren't very expensive, usually around $6-$12 per month, and will alert you if anyone opens accounts in your name.

Call Your Cell Phone Provider Immediately

You should have their customer service number stored in a place other than your phone. As soon as you notice the phone is gone, call them and let them know. They can take steps to ensure that you are not charged for anything, and can also deactivate the account. Make sure you have the IMEI and device serial numbers stored in the same place as the customer service number.

Have you lost a smartphone or had one stolen? Did any of these terrifying things happen to you?

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PurchaseWisely

Rather than keeping a list of passwords, I keep hints that mean nothing to anyone but me. Very useful for me, but worthless to anyone who steals or finds a lost phone.

Having recently lost my iPhone, I know from personal experience the peace of mind you get from the "remote wipe" app. Also, passwording your phone, not keeping any sort of compromising photos, not auto-saving passwords and not allowing automatic logins. Yes, it's a pain to manually enter logins and passwords all the time, but when I discussed the loss with our IT department at work (my employer supplies my phone), we went through a checklist of possible problems. The tech told me "You're the IT department's dream! There's nothing on there to worry about and you wiped it less than an hour after you lost it. Best thing you can do!"