The typical cellphone user upgrades every 18 months. Trade-in programs like those recently announced by Apple and Walmart could spark even quicker stampedes for the latest-and-greatest models - with turned-in phones still full of personal data.
"Most people consider a smartphone a communications device," notes Adam Levin, former New Jersey Director of Consumer Affairs and founder of Identity Theft 911, a provider of identity management and breach-response services for businesses. "What many people don't realize is that it's a data storage device."
And when it stores sensitive data, a discarded smartphone can be a potential gold mine for scammers.
There are no reported cases of identity theft specifically tied to smartphones swapped in trade-in programs. But studies show that smartphone users have a 30 percent higher rate of ID theft than non-users - often resulting after a lost or stolen device falls into the wrong hands.
In addition to these tips on protecting new smartphones, here's what Levin suggests you do to protect yourself before trade-in time:
- Remove the SIM card and any additional memory cards that may be storing sensitive data in the phone, before turning in the device. A SIM - short for "Subscriber Identity Module" - is a small circuit board to identify it to your carrier, and may be used in a new model with the same service provider. If doing that, ask that carrier to scan your SIM for possible viruses before reinstallation.
- Delete all data before trading (or recycling) your old phone, which usually can be done with a "factory reset." Manufacturer websites and owner's manuals should have instructions.
- Limit personal information on your new phone. In addition to the obvious like financial account records, consider email accounts noting your workplace and/or used as default passwords on online accounts, photographs, information about birth dates and the like. "Any personal data on a smartphone is one more building block, and the whole secret to identity theft is to cobble as many building blocks as possible to re-create a picture of the victim," says Levin.
- Set up your new phone to encrypt data - especially if you do online shopping or banking with a smartphone. Also lock its screen with a PIN - done by only one-third of users. Don't use the most hackable PINs noted here.
Something else to consider: Experts consider Android smartphones to have the least secure operating systems, and some reports suggest they are more likely to keep sensitive data after owners followed factory reset instructions. Conversely, iPhones and Windows 7 phones are credited as most secure, followed by BlackBerry.
Photo: Intel Free Press/Flickr
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