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5 Tips to Protect Your Phone From I.D. Theft

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- Identity fraud thieves are increasingly targeting smartphones as a gateway to grabbing consumers' private financial data.

If you don't act to safeguard your smartphone from I.D. thieves, you could be taking a big risk, but some preparation and a little bit of help from financial services companies are good places to start protecting yourself.

Mobile banking is on the rise, and that means a new place for fraudsters to get at peoples' financial data.

According to a report from Javelin Research, about 8.1 million Americans were victimized by identity theft in 2010 to the tune of $37 billion. The average cost per consumer was $631.

Sometimes simply waiting too long to address an I.D. theft is what will really cost you.

"The longer identity fraud goes undetected, the more expensive and difficult to resolve it tends to be for the consumer. Therefore, it is vital for consumers to monitor their accounts frequently and to partner with their financial institutions to help prevent, detect and resolve fraud," Javelin says in its report. "About half of identity frauds are detected by consumers, and half are detected by third parties (45% vs. 55%)."

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With smartphone use growing by 40% last year from 2010, the potential for increased identity theft activity will rise too.

To guard personal data on your smartphone:

  • Make sure your bank's firewall is strong. Don't sign up for mobile banking unless you have assurance from your financial institution that it can protect you against viruses and security breaches. Consider the Zeus virus, which recently haunted Android phone users: Hackers were able to use the virus to access Droid users' personal banking data without them even knowing it.
  • Lock your phone. Lock your smartphone when you're not using it. Ask your phone provider about password protection settings for your phone if you don't know how to set up the feature. Then choose a password that's not obvious.
  • Work with your bank. If you're doing some mobile banking, make sure you sign up for automatic alerts when money leaves your account, or at worst, for "unusual" withdrawals (say, $250 or more).
  • Disable text notifications from your bank or credit card. Many financial institutions communicate with customers via text messages, and while banks aren't likely to include your account number, other data such as your address may be visible to anyone who looks at your phone. Make sure to erase all texts from your bank or card carrier as soon as you've read them, or disable the function altogether.
  • Have an emergency plan if your phone is lost or stolen. If your smartphone disappears, don't take anything for granted. Chances are it has an "enable remote tracking" feature where your carrier can track its whereabouts. Find it and activate it now.
  • In general, experts say you should also be cautious about downloading free apps, which may come from disreputable sources. You're giving away private data to strangers every time you install one, and you have no way of knowing whether the app's publisher is legit or not. Always check the app's security features before pressing the button. If they don't offer any, don't download the app.

    Protecting the personal data inside your smartphone should be priority one, but combine it with a close monitoring of your financial accounts. If you let things slide, your next call may be to your bank's claim processing service.

    >To submit a news tip, email: tips@thestreet.com.

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