One of the best ways to prevent smartphone theft is to keep an alert hand on the device at all times. Don't loosely hold your smartphone as you lollygag down the sidewalk. Keep a firm grip and keep it close to your body. Better yet, leave it concealed in an interior pocket. This way, you can avoid a seasoned smartphone thief's most popular tactic: Slapping a victim on the back of the head, sending the smartphone flying into the air and snatching it before it hits the ground.
In case of theft, you'll want to know your smartphone's serial number and model number. Both are usually listed under the "settings" tab or imprinted on the back of the device. Importantly, smartphones also have a unique device identification number, known as an International Mobile Equipment Identifier (IMEI).
The IMEI is a 15- to 17-digit numerical code assigned to each smartphone by manufacturers. It allows carriers to remotely disable your smartphone when you contact them [source: MPDC].
The carrier can also enter your smartphone's IMEI into a national database that tracks stolen smartphones. All major carriers in the U.S. participate in this database, as do a few international carriers. This database feeds into the Global System for Mobile (GSM) and Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service networks [source: Rouse].
To learn your smartphone's IMEI, dial *#06# and the number will appear on the screen. If your phone is an older model, this may not work. However, you can also turn your phone off, remove the battery and record the IMEI under the label. Be sure to keep the information in a different location than your smartphone [source: Wollan].
You should also install a tracking app. For iPhones, you can try Apple's Find My iPhone. Or, if you have iOS 7 installed on your iPhone, you can remotely launch Activation Lock if your phone is stolen. This technology prevents thieves from erasing your phone's data or disabling location apps. It also prevents thieves from restoring or reactivating your smartphone [source: Friedman]. For Android smartphones, there are several third-party apps including Where's My Droid and Lookout [source: Wollan].
If your smart phone is stolen, call the police and give them the serial and IMEI numbers and any locations identified by your phone's tracking app.
Author's Note: Why don't carriers want a 'kill switch' for stolen phones?
When I first considered this question, I thought, "Yes, why don't they?" I had a phone stolen several years ago, before phones were smart and before tracking apps were the norm. It wasn't possible to brick the phone, even when I reported it to the carrier, so I tracked the incoming and outgoing calls through my phone bill. I tracked a landline to a particular address and alerted police. They weren't as impressed with my detective skills as I was, and my phone was never recovered. I was, however, eventually able to suspend the phone's service -- but only after I paid the bill for the calls the thief made.
- Ben-Achour, Sabri. "Why are cell phone carriers rejecting the 'kill switch'?" Marketplace. Dec. 11, 2013 (Dec. 12, 2013). http://www.marketplace.org/topics/business/why-are-cell-phone-carriers-rejecting-kill-switch
- Consumer Reports. "With 1.6 Million Smart Phones Stolen Last Year, Efforts Underway to Stem Losses." June 3, 2013. (Dec. 9, 2013) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2013/06/with-1-6-million-smart-phones-stolen-last-year-efforts-under-way-to-stem-the-losses/index.htm
- Goglak, E.C. "Smartphone Makers Pressed to Address Growing Theft Problem." The New York Times. June 13, 2013. (Dec. 6, 2013) http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/13/smartphone-makers-pressed-to-address-growing-theft-problem/
- Pepitone, Julianne. "Would a Smartphone 'Killswitch' Deter Thieves?" CNN. June 13, 2013. (Dec. 6, 2013) http://money.cnn.com/2013/06/13/technology/mobile/smartphone-theft/
- Ribeiro, John. "Carriers Say Smartphone 'Kill Switch' Would be a Juicy Target for Hackers." PC World. Nov. 21, 2013. (Dec. 6, 2013) http://www.pcworld.com/article/2065820/carriers-say-smartphone-kill-switch-attractive-to-hackers.html
- Rouse, Margaret. "IMEI." WhatIs. June 2012. (Dec. 6, 2013) http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/IMEI-International-Mobile-Equipment-Identity
- Schwartz, Mathew. "The Trouble with Smartphone Kill Switches." Information Week. Aug. 13, 2013. (Dec. 11, 2013) http://www.informationweek.com/mobile/the-trouble-with-smartphone-kill-switches/d/d-id/1111143
- The District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department. "Stolen Smart Phone? Brick It." (Dec. 6, 2013) http://mpdc.dc.gov/page/stolen-smart-phone-brick-it
- Warranty Week. "Mobile Phone Insurance Market Shares." Nov. 14, 2013. (Dec. 6, 2013) http://www.warrantyweek.com/archive/ww20131114.html
- Wollan, Malia. "Outsmarting Smartphone Thieves." The New York Times. May 8, 2013. (Dec. 6, 2013) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/technology/personaltech/outsmarting-smartphone-thieves.html