Smartphones Remain Vulnerable to Security Risks

At least 7.1 million smartphones were irreparably damaged, lost or stolen and not recovered last year.

Of the more than 100 million American adult smartphone owners, 39 percent 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.

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

At least 7.1 million smartphones were irreparably damaged, lost or stolen and not recovered last year, Consumer Reports indicated. However, 69 percent of smartphone users hadn’t backed up their data, including photos and contacts, and less than a quarter (22 percent) had installed software that could locate their lost phone.

“When you take your smartphone 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,” Jeff Fox, technology editor of Consumer Reports, said in a statement. “We recommend that all smartphone users take the basic precautions we outline in this report to ensure that their phones are secure from wireless threats.”

A projected 13 million users engaged in financial transactions at hot spots in hotels, retail stores and airports last year. The report recommended that before using any application to do business at a WiFi hotspot, smartphone owners 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.

While the risks of owning a smartphone are multiple, the devices can be quite secure if users take a few basic precautions, the Consumer Reports study found. The study found using some type of passcode, even a simple four-digit one, which 23 percent of users told CR that they used, is better than nothing.

However, on Google Android phones and Apple iPhones earlier than the iPhone 5, a thief using the right software can crack such a code in 20 minutes, according to Charlie Miller, a security engineer for Twitter. A longer code that includes letters and symbols is far stronger, the study suggested.

In addition, the report indicated that the location-tracking feature that all smartphones have can also leave users vulnerable to wireless threats. One percent of smartphone 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--only one in three smartphone owners surveyed by CR had turned it off at times during the previous year.