6 Ways to Protect Your Mobile Data

Soldier using smartphone

This content is provided courtesy of USAA.

Your life is on that smartphone and tablet. Here's how to keep your finances and identity safe.

Mobile devices make our lives easier — everything we need to contact friends and family, manage our finances and juggle our personal and professional lives is at our fingertips. But what if that information were to fall into the wrong hands? Then, scammers and thieves would have everything they need to drain your bank accounts and steal your identity.

To keep your smartphone and tablet safe from such prying eyes, follow these six essential safeguards.

1. Use Passwords, Locks and More

Always password-protect your mobile device, use the auto-lock security feature, and activate the encryption feature (if it's built in), advises Jack Key, USAA's chief information security officer. Many devices can be set so that if the wrong password is entered a certain number of times in a row, the device automatically deletes all the stored information. But don't worry — you should be able to retrieve your data from your computer if you've been synchronizing the two devices.

When creating a password, choose one that's easy for you to remember but will be difficult for others to guess. And make sure your auto-lock feature is turned on so it will kick in after a couple of minutes. That helps ensure no one will be able to use the phone or tablet without knowing your password. Also, don't share your password with anyone or tape it to your mobile device.

While encryption offers some protection and may prevent unauthorized access to your mobile data, many mobile devices don't include this feature in their operating systems. Check the owner's manual to see if your phone has encryption, and make sure the feature is included when you purchase a new phone.

The operating systems on many tablet PCs are more advanced than those on smartphones, and additional security measures may be available. For example, if your tablet runs the Windows OS, it will support standard anti-virus software, which should be installed. Numerous recent versions of Android also include an encryption option.

To encourage the return of a lost handset, consider writing or engraving your name and contact information — but not your password — on its back with the promise of a reward. Several applications for smartphones let you offer a reward for the return of a lost phone.

Remember that you can work more securely on your phone if you use it properly. USAA uses text messages and emails to help you detect suspicious credit card activity and to send you security and fraud alerts, helping protect your USAA accounts.

2. Back It Up

Only store the information you'll need quick and frequent access to in your mobile device, Key advises. Remember, syncing your device to Outlook or another email application may automatically synchronize any notes in your contacts database, so pay special attention to what you have in those fields. Take care not to store user names and passwords in the note fields, says Key.

Also keep a separate record of your phone's basic data, including all account numbers, passwords, phone numbers, addresses and any other sensitive information, as well as the device's make, model and serial number. If your gadget is lost or stolen and you want to change your passwords quickly, you'll have the information you need at your fingertips.

3. Beware of Jailbreaking and Out-of-Market Apps

Such practices can open your phone to viruses and Internet scams without your knowledge, warns Key. The only way to remove these harmful software threats, known as malware, is to completely wipe out the phone's memory and revert it to its original factory status.

Just because your iPhone® isn't jailbroken doesn't mean you're immune from risk. Apple® says it rejects more than 100 spyware-infested or phishing-laden applications every day. The risk is even greater with Android, because these apps are not always thoroughly vetted before they go on sale. Beware of all apps downloaded from outside the Android Market. Out-of-market apps can be infected with viruses, Trojans and other malicious software applications that can steal your personal information.

As hackers get more sophisticated with these devices, the possibility of malware increases. Mobile phishing apps — phony versions of real applications designed to separate you from your personal information — are also on the rise. An example recently hit close to home when USAA thwarted a phony USAA app for Android.

4. Keep Close Tabs on Your Tablet

Most tablets are thought of as overgrown smartphones that can be used for browsing the Web, viewing videos and playing games. But tablets are just as capable as a phone — if not more so — when it comes to doing real work. They require the same amount of security foresight, yet few users even secure them with a password. Its larger size makes a tablet a more visible and natural target for would-be thieves. Because tablets are fully usable without a smartphone plan, they are easier to resell on the black market.

While a phoneless tablet may not contain your cellular directory, it will often have everything else — from web bookmarks to all your apps (complete with saved account information). Tablets have been touted for mobile banking, mobile investing and online shopping. You probably have a few apps along these lines installed, yet minimally secured. Letting your tablet fall into the wrong hands could be as disastrous as losing a phone or a laptop.

5. Shield Your List of Contacts

Among the most sensitive pieces of data on your computer, tablet or phone is your contact list. Filled with personal information about hundreds or thousands of people, many contact databases also contain account information, passwords and Social Security numbers buried (and often forgotten) in the notes.

Keeping your device out of criminal hands is one way to safeguard that information. But did you know many third-party apps can access your contact list? If you use an Android phone, you will be notified if an app you install requires permission to access your contacts. If permission isn't required or something else doesn't seem right, don't install the application.

Before you install an app that does use your contacts list, make sure you read the company's privacy policy. USAA's mobile app, for example, lets you send money directly to anyone, and it uses your contacts list to make transferring those funds easy. But USAA does not store your contacts list within the app, and it does not transmit information from contact lists over the airwaves.

6. Act Quickly

If your mobile devices are lost or stolen:

  • Call your provider to report the theft.
  • File a police report (if you know it's been stolen).
  • Place fraud alerts on your credit reports.
  • Notify anyone whose contact or other information is stored in the phone.
  • Consider using a remote wipe capability (if available) to prevent someone from accessing your personal information. This gives you the ability to send a command to your device that will delete your data.
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