It seems they’re everywhere; smartphones have become essential tools of life, and are with us most of the time. Even calling them “phones” feels a little dated these days. The fact is, smartphones have become powerful computing devices that help us with everything from banking to shopping to entertainment to work.
But all that power and access come with some risks. Smartphones can be vulnerable to security breaches that make you a target for identity and data theft. And their increasing mobility and connectedness raise the risks even higher.
However, there are some basic, common sense steps anyone can take to protect personal information on a smartphone. There are also more advanced technical measures that offer a higher level of security, but for most people it just takes a little awareness to make your phone more secure and protect your identity.
Here are eight essential steps you should be taking to keep your smartphone more secure.
- This almost goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway! Never leave your smartphone out in a public place, or where others can access it. Don’t leave it on a table in a cafe, and don’t use it to “save a seat.” It takes only a second for someone to “grab and go.” Always be aware of your surroundings and, just as you shouldn’t text and drive, please don’t text and walk.
- Be aware of suspicious links. Your smartphone is as vulnerable to bad email attachments as your laptop or work computer, and texts can include malicious links. Use common sense and caution when opening emails or responding to texts from unknown sources. Don’t give out personal or account information if the request comes from an email or a text; instead, confirm the request directly with the business itself. If you’re not familiar with an email source, don’t open the attachment.
- Set up a pin or password, and lock your screen. All smartphones offer this option, and you should use it. When you do, make sure it’s strong by avoiding obvious ones (such as “12345” or “password”). Come up with a password that’s unique to your smartphone and that you will remember. And use a screen lock feature that automatically locks your phone after several minutes if not in use, requiring the password or pin to re-enter. Also, never store your password or pin on your smartphone.
- Download and use apps only from trusted sources, such as major app stores that come pre-packaged with your phone, or from well-known sources such as the Amazon Appstore. Google, Apple, and Microsoft all offer their own app stores. Avoid smaller, unknown, or untested third-party app suppliers, which can carry malicious software. Even with apps from trusted sources, for added security check out online reviews and ratings before you download, and read the apps’ privacy /permissions policy to see what kind of personal data they collect and what they do with it.
- Keep your operating system and apps current. Most smartphones update automatically, but if not, or if you opt-out of automatic updates, be sure to request notices about updates. Install them promptly. These periodic updates usually add features, beef up security, and install important security patches for past issues that have been resolved.
- Log out of online sites when finished. When doing bank transactions, you’ll be required to log in; and many online shopping sites offer or require log-ins. Log-ins make sites both more secure and convenient. But remember to log out once you’ve paid or finished your business. Many people forget to do so and leave themselves open to an easy security exploit.
- Turn off wifi (wireless) or Bluetooth connections when not using them. Free, public wifi spots are increasingly common, and offer an easy way to surf the internet. But using public wifi also makes you vulnerable by making your location and identity available to nearby hackers. Avoid financial transactions and sending or sharing personal information (such as credit card numbers, log-ins, social security info, even your home address) when using public wifi, and disable access after you leave. Check your settings to see if your smartphone automatically connects to wifi; if so, turn it off. The same goes for using Bluetooth or similar data-transfer services.
- Look into security, backup, and encryption services and apps. Beyond these basic security measures, there are additional protections available to make your smartphone even more secure, such as installing special software, backing up data on “the cloud,” and encrypting data. All major service providers offer security apps for their products, available in their online stores. There are also websites where you can get information about added security. Computerworld.com and PCmag.com are widely-used commercial websites, and Consumerreports.org and the FCC’s Smartphone Security Checker are reputable tools you can explore for more information.
Your smartphone is a technological wonder that makes all kinds of things faster, easier, and more fun. It’s also a plethora of personal information including credit card numbers, contacts, browsing history, photos, and emails. These simple measures are a good starting point for thinking about how you can access the convenience of your smartphone while also keeping important details safe.