Your iPhone or your Life

by Dave Michels

Lately, I’ve come across several stories about stolen iPhones.

The first one that caught my attention was here by Colin: Who Profits from Mobile Phone Theft? Evidently, iPhone theft is a real problem that continues to grow. Colin points out that Apple could put a stop it if they wanted to, but don’t. Instead the US Government is stepping in with a stolen phone registry. Since Colin’s article, I’ve seen several more posts. There was this one that got stolen at a TSA screening which apparently quite common. The article points out that the maze of bureaucracies make reporting the issue a nightmare. Stolen iPhones are big bucks – particularly in poorer parts of the world. Benjamin Cohen just got his stolen, at knife point last week. He wrote a detailed blog post about his experience and lessons learned.

Here are some thoughts (mine and his mixed) on the matter:

  1. It is easy to forget how valuable these little devices are. They are not $199 with a two year contract on the used market. These are powerful super computers and worth $500-$800 without contracts. I’m just talking about the hardware here, but the information within can also be valuable.
  2. Losing a wallet is stressful and exhausting – the mobile phone has much more information than a wallet.
  3. Benjamin points out he felt safe as he set his security code to 8 digits, but his phone was stolen while he was using it, thus it was unlocked. The thief immediately turned off location services and Benjamin has been unable to remotely wipe the device. You can only wipe the device while the SIM is active – and since that’s a whole separate risk, it makes sense to kill the SIM soon after the phone is stolen. The phone can still access lots of cloud content over wi-fi even when off the mobile network.
  4. When people think of high and low risk security sites – they think financial stuff like banks as high and social and email services as low. But email is probably the most sensitive and risky of our online accounts. With access to email, a perpetrator can learn a lot about you, determine where you have accounts, and often easily reset their passwords.
  5. I have a service that allows me to make one call to cancel all my cards if I lose my wallet. I don’t know of any such service for all my passwords. I can’t imagine having to reset all my passwords – social, financial, productivity, shopping, and all these clubs.
  6. I am always amazed when I find people that don’t even have a lock on their smartphones. Stupid.

There are several things going on here – the proverbial perfect storms.

A thriving black market for the stolen phones, there is an emerging black market for the content on them, there is huge demand for the devices without contracts, the devices are extremely powerful, and the devices are easy to steal -even grab. The vast majority of the population has little awareness of the risk that these devices are so coveted by criminals, and those of us that are often believe we are safe when we are not.