Apple iPhone, photo courtesy of Apple Inc.

Like millions of travelers today, I carry a smartphone with me, all over the world. You just can’t beat its convenience, its potential as a “lifeline” in an emergency, especially a long way from home, and its utility for travelers.

Are you one of the countless smartphone users who lost their smartphone while traveling? Did you cringe when you thought about someone else prying into your personal life as they scrutinized your contacts, calendar, notes, photos, and other personal data?

Did you ever get your cellphone back? If it wasn’t recovered, did you have to cancel credit cards, change passwords, change bank account numbers, and worry about identity theft? Are you still concerned about your potential loss of privacy, and identity theft, due to losing your smartphone?

At Cairo International Airport, I became one of those countless travelers who lost their smartphone while traveling in 2011.

I arrived on a short flight from Luxor, and while exiting the airport terminal, going to the bus for the ride to the hotel, my smartphone fell off my belt. I didn’t even feel it drop off.

I was lucky. Someone saw it fall off and gave it to a member of our group. At the bus I got it back.

Lucky is an understatement, as it’s not often people get their lost cellphone back while traveling, or at home, for that matter.

Symantec Corporation, in their “Smartphone Honeystick Project” conducted a study to find out how likely it was for a person’s smartphone to be returned. The company intentionally “lost” 50 smartphones in public locations in New York City, Washington DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Ottawa, Canada.

Before the smartphones were intentionally lost, simulated corporate and personal data was entered in them, along with the capability to remotely monitor what happened to them once found.

The results of the “Project” are disheartening, and should be construed as a warning to all, that it’s necessary to take preventative steps to protect your identity and privacy in case your smartphone is lost or stolen.

  • 50% of smartphone finders made no effort to contact the owner.
  • 96% of the smartphones had some of their contents accessed by finders.
  • 89% of the smartphones had their personal data accessed by finders.
  • 83% of the smartphones had their corporate data accessed by finders.
  • 70% of the smartphones had both their personal and corporate data accessed by finders.

Be aware, there’s more at stake than just your personal information on your smartphone, even if you don’t keep work data on it.

Your smartphone likely contains the names, phone numbers, home addresses, email addresses, and probably even more personal information about your contacts, such as their birth date, which could be used for the identity theft of your family and friends, actually everyone in your contact list.

Your smartphone potentially has account numbers, and usernames for bank accounts, credit cards, retail shops, Internet sites, social networking sites, etc., and if you’re like most people, it contains the passwords for all the above too.

Despite the potential for losing your privacy and being the victim of identity theft, I’d be willing to bet, like me, you’re not about to give up your smartphone, and go back to a cellphone on which you can only make phone calls.

So what can you do?

1. Always use a passcode or password to protect access to your smartphone. While it may be a pain in the neck to type it into the phone every time you wish to use it, it’s essential to protect your smartphone.

2. Turn on your smartphone’s auto-locking capability. That way, each time your phone isn’t used for a specific time period (set it to one minute or less), after the screen goes blank, or after you turn off the screen or phone, your required passcode or password, will have to be typed in to access the phone.

3. Don’t let anyone see you type in your passcode or password when you access your smartphone.

4. If your smartphone has the capability, set it to wipe your data from the phone if the passcode or password is entered incorrectly, a number of consecutive times. For example, if you have an iPhone, set it to erase its data if the passcode or password is entered incorrectly 10 consecutive times.

5. Don’t store your passwords in your banking, credit/debit card, smartphone and other sensitive apps, in case someone does breach your smartphone.

6. Make sure you have the capability to remote wipe (erase) your smartphone’s data. Apple has within its “Find my iPhone” service, the ability for you to remotely erase an iPhone’s data as long as the phone is on, and has a live data connection. There are similar Android services such as Android Lost.

Not long ago, a friend and client lost her iPhone. We used the “Find my iPhone” service and were able to see it on a map on her computer, showing it in the parking lot, outside her office. We recovered it. You can play a sound through the phone to help find it when close-by, even if the phone’s on vibrate only. These services work, but they’re not foolproof.

The reality is, it’s unlikely you’ll recover a lost or stolen smartphone, and if you didn’t take precautions, even if you’re lucky, and get it back, you can count on your private data not being private any more.