About 1.6 million Americans were victims of smart phone theft in 2012, according to projections from Consumer Reports’ nationally representative survey of adult Internet users. And when your phone falls into someone else’s hands, you run the risk of having your privacy breached or your identity stolen.
But there are ways to protect yourself, and they don’t have to cost a lot. In fact, you can get plenty of protection free from mobile security software designed specifically for Android-based devices such as smart phones and tablets. These apps are available at the Google Play store.
We tested 15 of the apps, which can locate, lock, and erase your phone's data if it's stolen (or lost). Generally, you use your Web browser to locate a stolen phone via GPS and to erase the data it contains remotely. You can also lock the phone via a Web browser, or by sending a text message to your phone that will render it useless. Remember that once you wipe your phone, the data is permanently gone, so you should always be sure to back up the data on your mobile device before you run into any problems.
Even if your phone is never lost or stolen, these products also offer protection against other dangers. Although severe malware attacks remain a rarity in the smart phone world, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. To that end, all the products scan your mobile device for malware, usually checking apps you’ve downloaded, Web sites you visit, and memory cards. Many also have antispam features, and most of the products we recommend block malicious websites.
Here’s a closer look at the top three products we tested.
The McAfee Antivirus & Security ($30 a year) was tops at locating, locking, and wiping phones but just okay at finding malware. Its anti-spam features are designed to reduce inbox clutter, and parental controls let you place apps into different profiles, so only certain users can see and access them.
You can also lock apps: For example, you could require a PIN to use your camera. This program wasn’t the most efficient when it came to using a device's resources while scanning, so you might notice things slowing down if you try to switch from, say, using the phone to opening an app while a scan is going on.
This was the best free app we tested. It did an excellent job locating and wiping phones, but it was only fair at locking them because, although it locks securely, we were able to circumvent the lock using a special technique that a clever thief might know. Once the phone is reported as stolen, the app is hidden so the thief can’t access it. You can also remotely set off a loud siren.
Avast did a very good job of allocating resources when scanning for malware, but it was just okay at finding malware. If you like tracking the workings of your phone, you can use the Apps Manager to look at the resources it’s using, or the Network Meter to follow how much data you’re downloading. It also offers parental controls and an antispam feature and blocks malicious websites.
It’s not free, but it’s still a bargain for $10 a year. BitDefender was just okay at locating stolen or lost phones because it can’t follow the phone after it’s been initially located; if the GPS is disabled, it can’t locate the phone at all. But it did a very good job locking and wiping phones.
This app is one of the best at locating malware and was also very good at allocating resources to do so. It blocks malicious websites and offers antispam features. It also has an Application Audit feature that lets you track permissions for your apps and tells you which can access billable functions such as calling or texting.
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