When it comes to smartphone safety, the single most important thing a mobile phone owner can do is lock the device with a unique, four-digit PIN.
That's been the opinion of many experts for years, but the advice still holds, including from Microsoft's chief online safety officer, Jacqueline Beauchere.
"Using a PIN or unique password is the single most important thing to do as a user of a smartphone to protect the device, the data and your reputation," Beauchere said in an interview on Thursday. "I'd say the data on your phone is more valuable than on your desktop computer, partly because it has the more recent information."
Beauchere posted a blog Thursday offering tips for online phone safety, such as remembering to conduct financial transactions over a safer home computer, rather than over a borrowed of public Wi-Fi hotspot, which can be hacked.
With the reported rise in smartphone thefts, using the passcode becomes even more important. Not that a passcode would prevent an on-the-street quick-grab robbery or the illegal re-sale of the device, but it can protect the highly personal data on the phone, including private messages, contact information and even mobile banking data.
"Make sure you set a passcode," said Stephen Ebbett, president of Protect Your Bubble, a smartphone insurer. "You probably have a lot of personal data on your smartphone. This can be a bonanza for thieves, but you can stop them in their tracks with a simple passcode."
Ebbett also warned against leaving a $700 smartphone unattended at a coffee shop, and urged users to install a free smartphone tracking app, in case it is stolen. Windows Phone, iOS, Android and BlackBerry all have smartphone tracking apps.
Ebbett and Beauchere both said users of mobile phones need to also be aware of their surroundings and know when to put the phone away. Ebbett advised users to keep both hands on the device when it is displayed in public.
"The mobile phone is just like a mobile wallet, so you should give it protection just like any personal article," Beauchere said.
Using a smartphone, especially in public, poses new challenges to social norms. "So much of this is common sense and comes down to etiquette and personal physical safety," she said. "If you are wearing headphones, can you really hear that horn down the street?"
Scott Rikkers, director of the marching band at James Madison University in Virginia, recently advised graduates in a May commencement address to pay more attention while walking and talking on a cell phone to improve their chances at future success.
He said he has created a personal game of "smartphone bowling" where he will walk directly at a person who is walking toward him on campus while that person is talking on a cell phone to see how long it takes for them to look up and turn away. If he bumps into them, it's a "strike," and if they turn away last minute, it is a "spare," he said, to laughter from the knowing grads.
Pocket dialing from a smartphone can be humorous or annoying, but the phenomenon also shows that mobile phone users are not locking their phones down with a passcode, Beauchere said. With the pocket dialing phenomenon, a pre-loaded phone number can be dialed when a person has the phone in a rear pocket and sits on it, or even when it gets jostled in a purse or briefcase. With a four digit passcode, random calls can be avoided.
Beauchere said she knows of pocket calls that have taken place while the unknowing caller was singing loudly along with the radio or having an intimate conversation with someone.
Microsoft found in a global online survey conducted last year with more than 10,000 desktop and mobile participants from 20 countries that just 28% said they use a PIN on a device, a number that increased to 37% in the U.S. (with 540 participants).
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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