Nobody knows how many smartphones and mobile phones are lost by UK mobile users each year but a starting estimate from the National Mobile Phone Crime Unit is 300,000. This is only the number reported, mostly by people with insurance against loss so the real figure must be much higher, possibly several times that number.
Consumers and businesses tend to think of the loss in terms of the handset’s face value but the tariff loss should the phone fall into the wrong hands (which increasingly it is doing) can end up being even worse. When a loss or theft happens abroad where people might unable to quickly reach a phone line, losses running into thousands of pounds are now possible.
Scandalously, it has taken the UK Government years to react to the problem, which essentially allowed operators to pass on these charges to anyone who hadn’t reported their handset missing with 24 hours. Recently that changed and a new voluntary code of practice sets a liability cap at £100 per customer, per loss, which some believe is still too high. The networks, EE, O2, Three, Virgin Media and Vodafone, successfully argued that if the cap was too low there would be no incentive for consumers to look after their devices but one welcome sweetener is that the new cap also works for other unexpected costs such as huge roaming charges, in-app purchases, and the unwitting use of premium services.
Network Three has already implemented the policy with other networks due to participate by September 2015 at the latest. That said, users can just as easily protect themselves against all losses by following a few simple tips. Follow these and losing a mobile device need never get to the stage of having to ask an operator to waive charges in the first place.
Write down the IMEI number
If a device is reported lost, the unique device IMEI number is the first thing a network will ask for. It is needed to identify and block a stolen handset. This can be accessed by opening the phone dialler and typing *#06#. Don't forget t keep a note of this somewhere.
Write down the network's 'lost or stolen' contact number
For Vodafone it's +44 7836191191; Three: +44 7782 333 333; O2: +44 344 809 0202; EE: +44 7953 966 250; Virgin: +44 7953 967 967. Giffgaff requires users to log in and report the handset lost via their online account so make sure to have the credentials.
Protect the SIM with a PIN
The simplest way to stop a thief running up call charges is to make the smartphone's service impossible to use. A lot of users still think that a simple screen lock does this but this only protects the physical device, leaving the SIM inside exposed. The first advice, then, is to put a PIN code on the SIM itself through the security settings on the device, preferably using more than four digits.
With this set, the subscriber’s phone credit can’t be accessed even if the SIM is put inside another phone - problem solved. Even a simple PIN will delay a determined thief, which buys the time to report the device lost to the network.
Using a SIM PIN will mean remembering and entering this code every time the phone is turned on but it’s a simple form of insurance and well worth the hassle.
Protect the device
This is the one security measure most users take, usually with a weak pattern code or PIN. A five-digit PIN is better. It's a start.
Consider using encryption
This is the sure-fire way to protect the personal data on the device such as phone numbers, emails, texts and photographs which thieves will possibly comb for valuable clues to attack online accounts or carry out identity fraud. Some will even try blackmail.
An Android, how this is done will vary slightly depending on the version being used (it was introduced from 3.0 onwards) and a few handsets are still said to be unsuitable because they lack the processing power. Quad-core smartphones should be fine.
Encryption can’t be undone so there’s no going back but it’s a secure barrier between your data and any thief so it’s worth considering. It throws up another PIN code that must be entered ever time the phone is turned on but it's worth it.
Some experts put this first on the list. If you’ve lost a handset, why not find it using location tracking and at least confirm it’s definitely been stolen? The drawback is that location tracking needs a second handset or computer to work and finding that can waste valuable time. They also require the handset to be turned on. Some can be fussy to use and the best ones cost or come inside complex apps that users don't completely understand. A psychological prop that will still be useful on the offchance that the phone has been mislaid rather than stolen.
Register with Immobilise
It’s worth using the UK’s national property register, Immobilise, which only works for smartphoens lost in the country. At the very least, should the handset be recovered (and a significant minority are), police willbe able to trace its owner.