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Lost mobile phones: a survival guide

Odds are you use your mobile all the time - but what should you do if it's lost or stolen? David Braue catches up with some new solutions to an ongoing problem.

6 min read
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Given how much most of us rely on our mobile phones every day, having one go missing can be an absolutely gut-wrenching experience. Unfortunately, as with all valuable things, lost and stolen mobiles have become a fact of life.

Increase your chances | Protect your digital life

Statistics on mobile phone theft are sobering. In the UK alone, more than 2 million phones, or one every 12 seconds, were stolen during 2005. Australia sees more than 200,000 thefts per year, or one every three minutes; double the number stolen five years ago. Even in strait-laced Singapore, a mobile phone disappears every two hours.

Not all missing phones are stolen, of course: one 2005 study noted that more than 13,200 mobile phones were left in taxis in Sydney alone during a six-month period. Grocery stores and schools are among the many other places where people often put phones down briefly and may forget them.

There is good news, however: thanks to growing user awareness of phone security and the effect of industry anti-theft initiatives, the number of phones being stolen in Australia may actually be declining. According to figures from the Australian Mobile Telecommunication Association (AMTA), 27,000 fewer mobiles were blocked under the industry's Lost & Stolen Program (LSP) between July 2006 and February of this year than during the same period in 2004-5.

LSP is a centralised database that was founded in 2003 as a cooperative effort between mobile carriers. Once a phone is reported stolen, its IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) -- an unchangeable, unique identifier built into every mobile phone -- can be blocked from usage on any Australian mobile phone network. The service works with both GSM and 3G services; CDMA phones don't have a SIM card and can be permanently disabled by the operator.

Blacklisted phones simply cannot be used in Australia. This means they have no value on the black market, hopefully making phones less attractive targets for thieves keen to sell them for a quick buck. eBay is a popular mechanism for moving stolen phones quickly, as are local markets and other informal settings. If you're suspicious about a potential second-hand phone's status, check its IMEI number against the IMEI Clearing House database by visiting www.mindyourmobile.com.

The LSP has blocked more than 745,000 mobiles since it was founded in 2003. But not all of them stay that way: the percentage of phones being unblocked -- because they have been found by or returned to their rightful owners -- this year reached 36%, compared with a four-year average of 27.8%. This implies either that more people are reporting phones as lost when they are just misplaced, or that thieves are simply dumping blocked phones after discovering they're unusable.

Increase your chances
There are many precautions you can take to avoid having your phone snatched. Don't leave your phone unattended in the car or in public places; use vibrate mode so you don't attract attention in quiet or isolated surroundings; engrave your initials and driver's license number on the phone and battery; record your IMEI somewhere safe; and confirm your insurance will cover the replacement cost if your phone is lost. Most phone resellers also offer pay-by-the-month replacement insurance as an option.

The most widely stolen phones
In 2005, the Midlands Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice at the UK's Loughborough University analysed data on more than 100,000 stolen phones. Their research found that in 2005, 49 percent of all phones stolen in 2005 were made by Nokia. In December 2005, these were phone thieves' four most popular targets:

A great defence is to configure your phone to automatically lock after a certain period of time so it can't be used again without entering a PIN; this can be slightly annoying in everyday usage, but will save you bother and expense if the phone ever goes missing.

To improve the likelihood you'll get your phone back, consider the likes of TrackItBack, a Canadian firm whose serialised, permanent adhesive labels can be attached to phones and anything else you're worried about losing. Each label has contact details for TrackItBack, which will organise the free return of your device and offers a reward for good Samaritans who report a lost device to the company's 24x7 call centres (the reward is more TrackItBack labels, which cost AU$14.95 each from www.trackitback.com.au.)

"People do want to be honest, but when they find things they often have no idea how to get them back to the right person," says sales and marketing manager Scott Thomson, who has personally returned 15 lost mobiles to Brisbane-area customers since the service made its Australian debut in January. "Quite often, lost things end up in the lost-and-found box collecting dust."

After four years operating in Canada (it also has subsidiaries in the US, UK, Portugal and Mexico), Thomson says fully 88% of items lost by TrackItBack customers have been returned -- suggesting that the kindness of strangers is still a going concern.

Protect your digital life
Even with these and other precautions, however, it's still possible your phone will go missing. If it does, expect short-term headaches not just from loss of the phone -- which is replaceable -- but the bills a thief may rack up between when the phone is stolen and disabled.

In the longer term, however, a bigger concern may be the loss of the data on your phone. Whether you have a basic mobile and a SIM loaded with contact numbers, or a smartphone packed with email, photographs, ringtones, videos and other content on them, the loss of a mobile can mean the loss of an important part of your life's record.

SIM backup devices are a good first-line defence. For around AU$20, you can pick up a simple device -- from Dick Smith Electronics or myriad other retailers -- into which you slide your SIM and push a button; contacts are quickly copied off the phone and stored in the device's memory, which typically holds 250 or more contacts.

Some carriers now offer more sophisticated versions of these devices that use the network to duplicate SIM contacts for storage on a server they manage. Optus SIM Backup, for example, copies up to 500 contacts, while phone giant Motorola offers its own Motorola BACKUP service.

A SIM backup service is a great idea if you want to save yourself the bother of re-entering hundreds of phone numbers, but it's not comprehensive protection against theft. To provide such protection, online services like VoxMobili's Phone Backup & Restore and NewBay FonePIM offer full-time backup of phone numbers, ringtones, and other information from mobiles (TrackItBack plans to launch a similar service soon).

You can't subscribe directly to one of these services, but carriers are beginning to embrace them as the need for mobile data protection continues to catch on. Once you're signed up, the data on your phone is regularly trickle-fed to a secure server and stored for later recovery. That way, if you're unlucky enough to lose your phone, your data is safe and sound, and can be easily viewed online or re-loaded to your new phone.

For many people, simply getting data back only solves part of the problem: with increasingly sensitive information being stored on smartphones, a growing number of users are embracing techniques that allow a phone's data to be completely wiped -- and the phone locked to prevent any use -- by the company's IT staff. Windows Mobile versions 5 and 6, and several other business-focused phones, include such 'remote kill' features, and can also be set to constantly synchronise data with a back-end server so you never lose a thing.

By constructing the right defences, you can protect your data and increase the likelihood that your lost or stolen phone will be returned to you. This may negate your excuse that it's time to splurge on a latest-and-greatest model, but it can provide great peace of mind for those of us that live and die by their mobile phones.