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How to keep your smartphone safe

A few simple measures can keep you — and your data — secure

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A smartphone can contain a lot of information that its owner would rather keep private. But 39 percent of more than 100 million American adult smartphone owners fail to take even minimal security measures, such as using a screen-lock, backing up data, or installing an app to locate a missing phone or remotely wipe its data, according to Consumer Reports’ Annual State of the Net survey.

At least 7.1 million smartphones were irreparably damaged, lost, or stolen and not recovered last year, Consumer Reports projects. Yet 69 percent of smartphone users hadn’t backed up their data. Just 22 percent had installed software that could locate their lost phone.

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Most smartphone users haven’t suffered serious losses because of their phone, but there are threats that merit concern. Among them: malicious software. Last year, 5.6 million smartphone users experienced undesired behavior on their phones such as the sending of unauthorized text messages or the accessing of accounts without their permission, Consumer Reports estimates. Those symptoms are indicative of malicious software.

The location tracking feature that all smartphones have can also leave users vulnerable. One percent of smartphone users told the survey that they or a person in their household had been harassed or harmed after someone used such location tracking to pinpoint their phone. Consumer Reports also estimated that at least 5.1 million preteens use their own smartphones. In doing so, they may unwittingly disclose personal information or risk their safety.

A smartphone can be secure if users take a few basic precautions. Those precautions include:

Using a strong pass code. A four-digit one, which 23 percent of users reported using, is better than nothing. But on Android phones and iPhones earlier than the iPhone 5, a thief using the right software can crack such a code in 20 minutes, according to 6 Miller, security engineer for Twitter. A longer code that includes letters and symbols is far stronger.

Install apps cautiously. Malicious apps may not lurk around every corner, but they’re out there and can be tricky to spot. For example, Consumer Reports estimates that 1.6 million users had been fooled into installing what seemed to be a well-known brand-name app, but was actually a malicious imposter.

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IPhone users have one source for apps, Apple’s store, where there have been few reports of malicious apps. If you use an Android-based phone, you can get apps from numerous sources. Stick with the two most reputable, Google Play and Amazon’s Appstore.

Be alert to insecure Wi-Fi. A projected 13 million users engaged in financial transactions at hot spots in hotels, retail stores, and airports last year. Before using any app to do business at a hot spot, users should check the app’s privacy policy to see whether it secures wireless transmissions of such data. Otherwise, they may disclose sensitive information to a nearby criminal.

Turn off location tracking. Disable it except when needed, such as for driving directions. Only one in three smartphone owners surveyed had turned it off at times during the previous year.

Clean out your old phone. Before you sell or recycle your phone, remove any memory card, restore its factory settings, and make sure all sensitive data are deleted.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.

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