September 6, 2014

You’ve heard of taking a “selfie,” in which you take a picture of yourself and post it to social media. You might even be an avid fitness fanatic and therefore have even taken a “runfie,” which is the popular term for a photo of yourself before, during, or after any serious exercise effort. But if stealing smartphones with the intent of dumping their data and reselling them is your idea of a hobby, you’ve got a whole new photo op waiting for you: the “theftie.”

Thanks to extra measures being developed and marketed by cell phone manufacturers and security companies, your phone may now be able to take a photo of the thief who stole it and email it to you with the map to the phone’s current location. This feature can be engaged whenever someone enters the wrong passcode too many times, or when you notice your phone is missing and activate it from a computer.

Various phone manufacturers like Apple and Samsung have developed their own systems of personal phone safety, and aftermarket apps and annual subscriptions like Lookout have a number of features that do everything from taking the photo and tracking the phone all the way to emitting a loud siren or beep so you can find your phone if you’ve simply misplaced it.

Most of the security measures allow you to lock up the information in your phone if it’s stolen, preventing a thief from accessing things like your email, social media accounts, online banking app, and more. Many consumers worry about the safety of things like their photos and contacts lists as well, and this lock feature can also prevent a criminal from seeing the pictures of your kids, for example.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that some of these features are specific to the brand of phone and require you to have activated them. Apple, for example, offers a free feature called Find My iPhone on its models, but it can’t work if you didn’t have it turned on before the phone went missing. Samsung offers a service of its own, but it’s important to keep in mind that some of apps like Lookout will work differently on different brands of phones due to restrictions in the agreements.

Just how big a deal is this? It’s only a phone, after all… right? Not necessarily. First, a Consumer Reports survey estimates that there are more than three million phone thefts in the US each year; that’s not including the ones that are lost or damaged, that’s just the ones that are intentionally stolen. Thieves are predominantly interested in simply selling the phone, and recent changes to the laws on unlocking a phone for resale may actually make this crime increase.

But more than the inconvenience of having your phone stolen and the expense of losing a valuable device, it’s important to keep in mind that your smartphone is basically a mini computer. Your personally identifiable information can be accessed from it, depending on the behaviors you engage in with your phone. Users often keep their phones logged into their email accounts, their Facebook accounts, and more, and many banks, credit cards, and travel sites—just to name a few industries—have developed convenient apps that a thief could use to access your data and cause you serious harm.

Remember to treat your phone as an extension of your home computer, laptop, or tablet and safeguard your information by logging out of apps that require passwords. Never use a password storing app in your smartphone, and be sure that the passcode that makes your phone unlock for use is engaged. In the event that your phone goes missing, take action quickly to prevent the thief from getting more than just your phone.