Guarding against mobile and laptop thieves

By Tobias Hanraths

Most security solutions for mobile devices are clunky and irritating - best trick, don't let your gadgets out of your sight. Photo / Thinkstock
Most security solutions for mobile devices are clunky and irritating - best trick, don't let your gadgets out of your sight. Photo / Thinkstock

Smartphones, tablets, netbooks and notebooks are small, lightweight and easy to steal.

Worse, in cases of theft, people don't just lose expensive technology, but important data.

All it takes is one quick grab.

And people make it easy for thieves by laying their devices in front of them at restaurants, when they go to the bathrooms or when they put them in an outside pocket of a backpack.

"A modern smartphone is at least as important as money or credit cards and should be treated the same way," said technology author Rainer Hattenhauer.

He's also sceptical of technologies that help people find these devices if they do get stolen.

"I've never heard of a case where someone got his mobile back after a robbery."

Thus, protection means prevention: making sure the device never gets stolen.

Second, make sure the damage is limited if the worst does happen.

Andreas Mayer, who heads a German police criminal prevention unit, agrees.

It's important to never give thieves an opportunity, he says.

"The most effective protection is to keep the device on your person."

Notebook locks or padlocked briefcases aren't as useful, partially because they're impractical.

"If the security doesn't sensibly fit into your day, then it disrupts more than it's useful," says Hattenhauer.

There are also physical security devices for smartphones, like alarm devices on key chains that automatically sound when they're a certain distance from the phone.

The problem there is that the devices operate via Bluetooth, says Mayer.

"Third parties can eventually access sensitive data with an active Bluetooth connection," he says.

That creates a new risk.

Prevention also requires clearly identifying smartphones and notebooks.

That's easy with smartphones thanks to the International Mobile Equipment Identity number, individualised for each mobile and accessible by dialling star-hash-06-hash.

Owners should note this number.

If the device is stolen, it can always be identified this way.

Identification is a little more difficult with a notebook.

One possibility is creating an owner identification number that can be engraved into the housing or affixed with a special sticker.

That way, police or lost-and-found offices can contact the owner.

Some police departments can help with putting on the numbers.

Stores also offer software designed to help track down notebooks or smartphones.

"It's not always useful," says Mayer.

Usually, the location service is not specific enough and the area range shown too big.

The chances of finding a device this way are slim.

But that doesn't mean throwing your hands up in the air if you've been robbed.

First, in case of smartphone theft, make sure the SIM card is blocked.

It's quickest to call the hotline of your service provider.

Next, try to find a way to delete the data remotely.

App stores carry multiple programs for remote wiping.

Rafaela Moehl of the German telecommunications portal teltarif.de says there is no reason to pay for this kind of service.

"Check around first to see if your smartphone doesn't already have a remote wiping function integrated."

That's usually the case with Nokia or Sony Ericsson devices.

That means just entering in a code that shuts down the mobile with a text message.

Of course, that means sending the blocking text message before having the SIM card blocked.

Manufacturers like HTC or Samsung keep free internet platforms from which smartphones can be located and blocked and where data can be deleted.

Such services are also anchored in Windows Phone 7, while Apple integrates them into its Mobile Me.

The Apple version carries a fee, though the app for locating and blocking the iPhone is free.

Android users have a great variety available.

Of course, the problem then becomes that, after a remote wipe, all the addresses, phone numbers, appointments and documents are really gone.

That's why Moehl recommends backing up such data regularly.

- AAP

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