Keeping Family Cellphones Secure

A cellphone is an investment. In addition to the device itself, every family cellphone includes crucial information—contacts and messages, passwords and personal data, photos and videos.
Unfortunately, cellphones are also very vulnerable. They can be lost, stolen, hacked, dropped and infected with viruses. In a recent Verizon survey, over half of the respondents admitted losing or destroying at least one cellphone. A quarter had lost 2 or more phones, and 43% had sent the phone through the laundry.
People in the Verizon survey were over 18, so it’s easy to imagine that the figures would be even higher for adolescents. Your family may not be able to avoid every mishap, but you can minimize some of the heartbreak by teaching good cellphone habits as soon as kids get their first phone.

Use a password. A strong password will protect what’s on a phone if it gets stolen lost or “borrowed” by a mischievous friend. Help your child think up something memorable that isn’t based on readily available information such as birthday, street address, initials, etc. If kids object to entering a password every time they want to text, set the delay feature so the password kicks in when the phone hasn’t been used for a certain number of minutes. As a bonus, a password gives everyone in the family just a second to think, “Do I really need to check my phone right now?”

Have a back-up plan. A phone is a data storage device, and data needs back-up. It doesn’t matter whether you store photos and contacts in the cloud or on your own computer. Just be sure that back-up happens automatically.

Consider the find feature. Most phones have a find-my-phone option, and it can certainly be helpful if you need to locate a phone—or for that matter a child who’s carrying the phone. Just remember that this feature depends on location tracking. If you can find the phone—or the child—so can other people who know the number. Even if tracking isn’t enabled, you can still erase the data on a stolen phone, something that becomes more urgent if the phone is used for financial transactions. Sometimes this feature has to be enabled in advance. To find out how, search for “erase data” and the type of phone you want to protect.

Download apps from trusted sites. Apps are part of what makes cellphones useful and fun. Apps can also introduce viruses and security problems. Establish a family policy about downloads. Young children should get permission before every download. Everyone should use reputable sites like Google Play and the App Store because they evaluate apps for safety and reliability before they make them available.

Stay up-to-date. Hackers are constantly trying to exploit vulnerabilities in cellphones. Fortunately, reputable phone companies and app makers try to plug security leaks as they discover them. It’s a cat and mouse game, and you don’t want to be the mouse. The only way to have the benefit of updates is to download them. Use the settings on the phone to be sure all family phones get updates automatically.

Install antivirus protection. Some antivirus protection is built into cellphones but parents may want to add an extra layer of protection. Apps like Lookout, Avast or TrustGo can scan a child’s phone for malicious programs and help you remove them safely.

Be leery about links. Several years ago, a security firm found people were more likely to click on fraudulent links on their phones. Maybe that’s because the tiny screen makes it harder to recognize junk messages. Or maybe it’s because cellphone users get in the habit of clicking quickly on social media. Teach kids how to recognize phone spam—unsolicited messages that promise goodies. And remind them that they should never enter personal information into a form that pops up on the phone—no matter how tempting the offer seems to be.

Don’t give other people access. Teach your child how to put a phone into guest mode. Deploy this feature if someone asks to borrow the phone. Then the guest won’t have access to messages, photos and other personal information.

Be suspicious of unknown callers. Young phone users should have a list of approved contacts. Consider blocking everyone else. Older teens should know about the one-ring scam in which international crooks make the phone ring just once. If your child calls back out of curiosity, you get charged hot-line fees. The best way to prevent such problems is to block international calls unless there is a reason to receive them.

In addition to these technical tips, there are also some common sense ways to protect the family cellphones. A brightly colored case and a distinctive ring tone make it easier to find a missing phone. An inexpensive screen protector may keep a screen from shattering if a phone gets dropped—or thrown. A family charging station means that you’ll know where all phones are at least once a day. And a bowl of rice is a time-honored way to dry out a wet cellphone. (Better yet, save those little bags of dessicant so you can toss a few into a sandwich bag with a damp phone.)

Finally, befriend the folks who sold you the phone. They know the ins and outs of security and other special features. Dropping in for the occasional tutorial is one of the best ways to assure that your family’s cellphones—and the people who use them—are as safe as they can be.

Carolyn Jabs, M.A

Carolyn Jabs, M.A., raised three computer savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for ten years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Visit to read other columns. @ Copyright, 2016, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.