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Release Date: 05/01/2013

Consumer Reports: Four In Ten Smart Phone Users Fail To Take the Most Basic Security Measures

7.1 Million Had a Smart Phone that was Destroyed, Lost, or Stolen and Unrecovered; CR’s Mobile Security Investigation Sheds Light on Wireless Threats and Ways to Stay Protected 

CR June 2013 CoverYONKERS, NY — A smart phone can contain a lot of information that its owner would rather keep private. But 39 percent of the more than 100 million American adult smart phone 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 smart phones were irreparably damaged, lost, or stolen and not recovered last year, Consumer Reports projects. Yet 69 percent of smart phone users hadn’t backed up their data, including photos and contacts. Just 22 percent had installed software that could locate their lost phone.

“When you take your smart phone into your confidence, so to speak, you’re also taking in a host of parties, including app developers, your wireless carrier and phone manufacturer, mobile advertisers, and the maker of your phone’s operating system,” said Jeff Fox, Technology Editor, Consumer Reports. “We recommend that all smart phone users take the basic precautions we outline in this report to ensure that their phones are secure from wireless threats.”

The full report can be found in the June 2013 issue of Consumer Reports and online at ConsumerReports.org.

The report revealed that though most smart-phone users haven’t suffered serious losses because of their phone, there are wireless threats that merit concern. Among them: malicious software. Last year, 5.6 million smart-phone users experienced undesired behavior on their phones such as the sending of unauthorized text messages or the accessing of accounts without their permission, CR projects. Those symptoms are indicative of the presence of malicious software. 

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

A smart phone can be quite secure if users take a few basic precautions, Consumer Reports found. Those precautions include:

  • Using a strong pass code. A four-digit one, which 23 percent of users told CR that they used, 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 Charlie 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, CR projects 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.

  • 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 it’s needed, such as for driving directions. Only one in three smart phone owners surveyed by CR had turned it off at times during the previous year.

Smart-phone security is a chain no stronger than its weakest link. Many companies — including platform makers, phone manufacturers, and app developers — could take more steps toward smart-phone security. These steps, as well as additional findings from the Consumer Reports Annual State of the Net survey, are available at ConsumerReports.org and in the June issue of the magazine. The article also includes additional ways consumers can keep their smart phones safe.

Consumer Reports State of the Net Survey
The Consumer Reports National Research Center conducted our annual State of the Net survey in January, 2013. The findings are nationally representative of U.S. adult Internet users. Participants were 3,036 adults with a home Internet connection who were part of an online panel convened by GfK, a leading research company. From those respondents, we made national projections. The margin of error for the full sample was ± 1.8 percent, and ± 2.4 percent for the subset of 1,656 Internet-connected smart phone owners, both at a 95 percent confidence level.

About Consumer Reports
Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 8 million subscribers to its magazine, website and other publications.   Its advocacy division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace. 

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