Keep your phone from getting stolen (and what to do if it is)

Sometimes it isn't enough to simply be aware. Here are some practical tips for keeping your valuable phone from scheming baddies.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Editorial Director, Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Thought Leadership, Speed Desk and How-To. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica led CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
Expertise Content strategy, team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Samsung, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
Jessica Dolcourt
6 min read

It may sound obvious, but it's important to keep phones out of reach from opportunistic thieves. Josh Miller/CNET

At one point or another, every cell phone owner has experienced the onset of panic and despair that hits your gut the moment you realize your phone is missing. This has happened to me more times than I care to admit, and the loss or even active theft of a device as personal as a mobile phone only highlights our dependence on them.

In a related story, CNET's Kent German touches on different security measures you can take with your smartphone OS that can help keep thieves from using your phone once they have it. My job here is to spell out some practical, physical efforts that'll help keep your phone in your possession, and keep you out of trouble.

Lest you think cell phone safety is as obvious as simply being aware of your surroundings (and yes, that's paramount), keep in mind that smartphone robberies, both violent and not, are common and growing in number. It's here where local police report that over 50 percent of robberies in 2012 were related to cell phones, and here where acts of violence have been perpetrated during tech-related robberies.

1. Get a case

Smartphones make good targets because their relatively small size makes them easy to snatch and hide, their ubiquity makes them easy to move and their high value makes them a good return on a thief's investment, netting hundreds of dollars for a quick crime. The more premium the smartphone, the more money it brings in.

In addition to protecting your phone from scratches and breaks, a basic case can help conceal a distinctive phone's telltale markings. That's a detriment if you're trying to show off your handset's badass styling, but a benefit for maintaining a lower profile. Note: Even though they look better, a flashy designer case is like sticking a "steal me" marquee on your phone.

2. The claw

The best deterrent of all is to keep your phone hidden away when you're in public, where it's most vulnerable: on a bus or train, waiting in a square, walking down the street alone. But that isn't at all realistic. My phone is my own retreat, mobile workplace, and entertainment hub, too. I climb on a bus, my head nods down to meet the screen. I walk to work, fingers fly while I narrowly avoid smacking into lightposts and other sucked-in pedestrians.

Gripping your phone with both hands may seem strange, but could help deter casual thieves. It's also comfier than it looks. James Martin/CNET

So here's what I suggest: grip the phone securely in your hand, fanning out your fingers so that you've formed a protective cage or claw around the phone. Better yet, weave fingers from both hands around the device, so that they're touching. This is especially beneficial for larger phones that are harder to hold onto and therefore easier to snatch. It may sound strained, but for me this winds up being a natural way to grip a phone, one that happens almost instinctively.

Someone could still grab your phone from you, yes, but but you've now created a deterrent and the appearance of physically locking on to your device, even if you are completely absorbed in what's happening on the screen, and oblivious to your surroundings.

P.S.: Try not to be completely absorbed and oblivious. You might blind yourself to actual danger, like this tragic shooting of a college student that bus passengers missed while looking at their devices. Even if you're melting into the Internet, it pays to be aware of your environment.

3. Adopt a paranoid posture

For me in particular, phones aren't just a connection to my personal life, they're also my livelihood, and I do not want to lose them. So I tend to take the claw technique one step further by training my body into a defensive posture that blocks access to my valuables: purse, phones, etc.

Even if you're completely at ease in your surroundings, it helps to act cautious as a matter of routine. I really turned up the paranoid posture after a CNET reporter recounted how a thief on the bus stole a smartphone from his hands. The moment before the bus doors snapped shut, the perp (who had been waiting by the door) snatched the phone and dashed, trapping my colleague on the bus before he could react.

Here's how you do it: if you're sitting still, turn your elbows slightly out, lower your phone so that it's touching your lap and perhaps position it behind a crossed leg. If you're walking while listening to a podcast or music, keep the volume low enough so you can hear others approach, and keep a hand on your device. However you sit, the point is to make your phone hard to nab. Glance around by habit, especially if you're talking to someone on the phone, and resist the urge to gaze out at nothing. Targets that look aware are less desirable marks for opportunistic thieves.

4. Embrace the art of misdirection

I've heard stories from friends and friends of friends of people being trailed after leaving public transportation or a busy city square after striking up conversation with a "friendly" stranger who then mugs them for their electronics. Is that the fancy, new HTC Bling Bling I'm carrying? Oh no, overly interested stranger. No, it is not. This is last year's model and it is fatally broken.

If you can feel your phone while you walk, that's a good thing. Josh Miller/CNET

5. Make your phone hard to get, even for you

The easiest place to carry a phone is in your pocket, better yet a jacket pocket, but that's also the place a thief will look first. I've known several industry insiders and journalists who've had cell phones stolen from their pockets, purses, and backpacks, either quietly or as part of a crafty and elaborate plan to distract them.

My last major piece of advice is to get into the habit of keeping phones you aren't holding as hard to extract from your person as possible, like the inside pocket of a jacket, the interior pocket of a purse (with the purse clasped or zipped and with your arm blocking the zipper,) and so on. The goal, once again, is to make yourself too much work for a thief.

What to do if your phone is stolen

Still, if some baddie does nab your phone, there are a few practical things you can and should do, beyond using a "find my phone" service or any other software safeguard.

Report the theft to your carrier immediately. Your carrier will add it to a blacklist that will prevent anyone from using it to make calls or access the data network (Wi-Fi is another story, though). Also, activate any phone tracking and remote device management features at your disposal. Kent German has full details in his feature.

Likewise, report the theft to local police right away. They may not be able to get you your phone back, but they may be able to help track thieves if lifted phones are sold through legitimate channels for cash, such as a Web site like Usell or EcoATM. The police also can use apps like Find my iPhone or Android Device Manager to locate your handset.

This may go without saying, but don't get physical with robbers. Another real-life anecdote: I know a woman who managed to run down an iPhone thief for six blocks in New York City, in heels, she was that mad. As impressive as her anger-fueled sprinting was, who knows what kind of weapons or force the panicked thief was prepared to use, or if he was running toward heavy-fisted cronies for backup support.

Especially once you've taken measures to secure your sensitive information, escalating a robbery into a potentially violent act just ain't worth it.

How about you?

Ultimately, the best advice to protect yourself from frustration and grief is to combine software security measures with physical, visual deterrents to make yourself and your phone smaller targets. Do you have any cell phone horror stories, or personal tips to share about smartphone theft prevention? Leave your advice and tales in the comments below.