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Protecting Your New Smartphone

10 tips to avoiding cellphone hackers and identity thieves

After Santa delivers that prized holiday must-have to you or a loved one — a smartphone — expect trouble to come calling. As a mini-computer that can store sensitive data, it will be a gold mine of opportunity for identity thieves.

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But that's not the only reason why smartphones are increasingly targeted for hacking. Unlike traditional computers, they're always with you, and messages that arrive on them are more trusted than traditional email and landline phone calls. Studies indicate that smartphone owners are three times more likely to fall for identity-stealing "phishing" scams than those sent to a PC or Mac.

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Lock your smartphone screen with a PIN — only one in three users does this.
Volker Moehrke/Corbis

And use of smartphone security software remains rare.

Already, one in 14 smartphone owners has been a victim of ID theft — a 30 percent higher rate than the general public, according to a 2012 study by fraud tracker Javelin Strategy & Research.

With those numbers expected to jump in the new year, here are 10 ways to protect your new (or already used) smartphone.

1. If you're still shopping, know that experts consider the iPhone and Windows Phone 7 to have the most secure operating systems. Next comes BlackBerry, with Android having the least secure operating system.

2. Read the owner's manual to understand the phone's features, including default settings. Turn off or disable unnecessary features to minimize the number of potential entryways that hackers can use, suggests the FBI.

3. If your phone offers encryption, use it to protect stored data in case of loss or theft.

4. Lock its screen with a PIN — only one in three smartphone users does this. Don't use your birthdate or birth year, or any of these most commonly used (and hackable) PINS: 1234, 0000, 2580 (a top-to-bottom keypad sequence), 1111, 5555, 5683 (which spells "love"), 0852 (a bottom-to-top sequence), 2222, 1212 and 1998.

5. An app that will track and report the location of your phone is useful and may help police recover it if it's stolen. Apple's iPhone has the "Find My iPhone" app built in, but you need to activate it; apps such as "Where's My Droid" are available for Android devices.

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Have you seen this scam?

  • Call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360 or report it with the AARP Scam Tracking Map.  
  • Get Watchdog Alerts for tips on avoiding such scams.

6. Ask your wireless carrier how to remotely erase stored data if your phone is lost or stolen. But first, store sensitive data on a Google or iCloud account, and regularly perform backups by plugging your phone into your computer.

7. Consider security software recommended by your carrier or phone manufacturer. Free products such as Lookout Mobile Security are available for Apple, Android, Windows and BlackBerry phones.

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8. Before installing apps, read their reviews — and then buy only from well-known vendors such as Google or Apple. Always read the "permissions" before downloading apps and avoid those that — for reasons that don't seem to make sense — want permission to make phone calls, connect to the Internet or reveal your identity and location.

9. If selling or trading in an old smartphone, reset it to factory default to avoid leaving any personal data on the device.

10. Treat your smartphone as you would any computer. That means not opening questionable links in emails or text messages, not replying to unsolicited requests for personal information such as your Social Security or bank account numbers — no matter what Caller ID shows — and not using your smartphone to access sensitive data on a public wi-fi network.

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.

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