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Why Thieves Want Your iPhone

And what you can do to make sure they don’t get it

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

In the United States, 113 smartphones are lost or stolen every minute. Photo courtesy of Sean MacEntee

Boston ranks 10th in the nation per capita for stolen and lost smartphones, according to one report. That’s an anxiety-producing honor in a country where 113 phones are lost or swiped every minute. New York, ranked ninth, just wrapped up a record year for cell phone thefts. Meanwhile, Stamford, Conn., police are chasing a teenaged robbery gang dubbed the “Apple Pickers” because of their fondness for iPhones.

A January robbery in Brookline of a BU research assistant was the latest of several recent assaults on or near the Charles River Campus that involved the theft of a cell phone. The victim, who was treated for stab wounds and released from the hospital, was robbed of his, along with his iPad and laptop. Brookline Police have charged two men with the attack.

Handheld devices, although not the item most coveted by campus crooks, are a serious larceny lure. Boston University Police figures for reported stolen property (see chart) show that from 2010 through 2012, 131 cell phones went missing. (Bicycles were the campus’s top thief magnets, with 255 stolen from students and University employees. Next up were laptops, with 198 walking away from owners.)

Scott Paré, deputy director of public safety and deputy police chief, says some stolen phones are recovered, but not many. And even though some handhelds contain tracking devices, says Paré, those shut down when the device is turned off. Registering an iPhone on Apple’s cloud-computing service can help with that problem (see below).

The reason cell phones are so hot, says Quinn Shamblin, BU’s executive director of information security, has less to do with the personal and financial information stored on them than with their resale value. CBS recently reported that black-market iPhones go for up to $200 apiece.

“These are premium products that command a premium price,” says Shamblin. “They have a high status and their resale value is high compared to other electronics.” Thieves have little trouble “wiping” the device of personal information without triggering a tracking device, he says, and if a phone isn’t password-protected, it can easily be reset by its new user.

BUPD Reported Thefts from 2010-2012.

What you can do

The information below is taken from a University website with tips for protecting both your iPhone and its information. (The site also has advice for protecting other brands of phones and types of devices.)

First step: consider registering for Find My iPhone.

This is Apple’s computer cloud service that can help you locate your phone if it’s lost, wipe clean its data remotely if necessary, or send the phone a message. Register here for the service.

Enable your phone’s pass-code protection for shielding data.

You do this by entering the Settings app, tapping General, then tapping Passcode Lock, then tapping Turn Passcode On. You have the choice of picking a simple, four-digit password or disabling the simple pass-code function, which then requires a longer password of letters and numbers. Apple offers a brief primer on “Understanding Passcodes.”

Resist the temptation to remove the software limits that restrict iPhones to using only Apple’s apps.

Such “jailbreaking” appeals to those of libertarian bent who feel that they should be able to use any app they want on their phone. But it also enables malware to infect their phone and allows hackers to compromise their personal data.

A crucial but often overlooked task: when your trade in or toss your phone, wipe your information clean.

Find the necessary steps here. Be sure to back up your information elsewhere.

Find more detailed security hardening steps here.

Sometimes, the best advice is the most obvious—and the most ignored. BU’s tips site suggests not leaving your phone in a publicly accessible place. And BU Police have warned all of us that the people most likely to become victims of smartphone theft are distracted pedestrians talking on their phone. Try not to be one of them.

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