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Are you sure you’re not vulnerable if your phone is stolen?

man with head in hands

I was overcome with sympathy when I heard that Kaitano Tembo’s phone was stolen. I’ve had a phone stolen before, how I loved that Galaxy S (1). However, my thief was not as cruel as Tembo’s.

The thieves that stole his phone have been soliciting money from his contacts. They have been sending messages posing as Tembo, telling his friends and family that he’s in trouble and needs financial assistance.

Tembo found out when he got calls on his other number from family confirming that they had deposited the funds to bail him out of jail. He needed no such assistance.

That was not enough for the thieves, they had to really stick it to Tembo. They started sending adult content to his contacts. Why? Guess we’d have to ask them if they are ever caught.

All that’s clear is that they are just cruel. I can’t even process the thought of my mother receiving lewd stuff and thinking it is from me. The next Tembo family reunion is going to be spicy.

How to avoid Tembo’s predicament

It doesn’t matter how careful you are, your phone could be stolen. You could sleep with your iPhone taped to your thigh and still wake up with it gone.

We end up with a few questions,

  • What can you do to minimize the damage that can be done to you?
  • How can you ensure you increase the chances of recovering the device?
  • How can you ensure you don’t lose your stored memories?

Minimising vulnerability in the case of theft – Passwords

The golden rule in security is to do whatever makes the thief / extortioner’s job hard. The bare minimum in the case of electronic devices being the setting of passwords. It is unacceptable to have a phone without lock screen security.

Do note however that locking a phone can reduce the chances of recovery. Thieves will immediately hard reset a phone if they can’t use it. That would wipe any tracking apps you may have installed.

However, these days thieves know about trackers and so they usually just hard reset a phone, locked or not. So you might as well lock it.

Biometrics

If you can, set fingerprints, irises, or a face as that would be the most secure. Note that not all face recognition security is equal, unless you are sure that your phone has iPhone like FaceID, avoid face unlock.

Passwords

A good password works, the best being gibberish like hJu89*L9/x@Y%, not your name or something else that can be guessed easily.

PIN

A PIN can be good if it is long and not something simple like a family member’s birthday.   

Pattern

A pattern is better than nothing but you’ve seen kids tilt a phone and correctly guess one. Choose the earlier options unless.

I know it is annoying to have to input a long password or PIN every time you have to use your phone. However, that’s the price one has to pay for peace of mind.

You can even go overboard with it and require fingerprints/passwords to access certain apps on your phone. WhatsApp has this option baked in. For other apps you can use something like AppLock.

This will ensure that the thief will not be able to view anything stored on the phone. A dedicated thief with the necessary skills can still break into it but the average pickpocket won’t be able to access the content on a locked phone.

We have seen even the FBI in the US struggle to unlock the phone of a deceased terrorist.

Without that access, there will be no messages or naughty pictures sent to your family.

Increasing recovery chances

The network operators and the police assist in recovery. If a phone is stolen, the first thing is to report to the police. They work with Econet, Netone and Telecel to locate and recover the phone. Of course patience is the name of the game when the ZRP is involved.

To make it easier for the police and the network operator, find and save your IMEI number. They can still proceed if you don’t have it but it’s faster when they have it.

However, you can do something right now that may help in the future. You need to set up Find Device. This allows you to locate your phone on a map, failing that you can remotely wipe it.

So not only can Find Device help locate exactly where a phone is, it can help delete everything on it. No contacts, no photos, no WhatsApp history – just an empty phone, exactly as it was off the manufacturers floor.

The main drawback with Find Device is that the phone must be connected to the internet and have location settings on. You’ll have to contend with reduced battery life from keeping location on.

You can also set up your phone to alert select contacts if a new sim card is inserted into your phone. The alert will tell them what the new number is.   

Making sure you don’t lose what’s on the phone

Make sure you back up everything you can to the cloud. Gone are the days when you would store your contacts on the sim card or even phone.

I have changed phones multiple times and as soon as I log in to my Google account, like magic, all my contacts appear in the address book. To enjoy the same, make sure you allow the syncing of contacts to an account like Google in the Contacts settings.

You can do the same for your pictures with apps like Google Photos. The app backs up all your photos to the cloud. Logging in to your account on any device will give you access to those photos. Stolen phone or not, your pictures are preserved.

WhatsApp allows you to back up your chats to Google Drive in addition to a local backup on the phone. You need to utilize this. Believe it or not, I still have the very first message I ever sent on WhatsApp despite losing and switching phones over the years.

You can back up call history, text messages, audio recordings or even settings to the cloud. Ensuring that you never lose anything even in the event of theft. Do the work now and you will only mourn the loss of the device and not the memories if ever your phone is stolen.

I hope you never lose a phone to theft but if that happens, I hope you won’t also lose everything on that phone.


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