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Keeping your mobile phone secure

By Oli McKean

Our top tips will help you keep the personal data on your smartphone safe and secure

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Your smartphone is a potential goldmine for thieves and hackers. Fortunately, there are some quick and easy steps you can take to help protect your personal information.

Think about all the data that's stored on your smartphone: text messages, email exchanges, browsing history, photos and videos - none of which you'd want falling into the wrong hands. Some phones will also have tracked where you've been and, in some cases, an app on your device may hold the keys to your bank account.

Thankfully, it's not too difficult to start taking precautions, and below we offer some top tips to help you protect your personal information. The steps relate specifically to iPhones running iOS10 (although older versions will be very similar) and Samsung’s version of Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but it will be similar for other iterations such as 5.0 Lollipop or 7.0 Nougat.

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Set a password 

Having no password on your phone is akin to leaving your front door open. It means anyone can delve straight into your emails, photos and any other personal data stored on the device. 

We recommend setting up a six-digit password or Pin – it’s harder to crack than a four-digit code. Here's how you do it: 

  • Android: On an Android phone tap Apps – Settings – Lock screen and security – Screen lock type – PIN. From here you can enter a six-digit Pin to keep your device secure. Alternatively, choose Password and follow the instructions to set one.
  • Apple: The latest iPhones (running iOS10) prompt you to set up a six-digit Pin from the start. On an iPhone using an older version of iOS, you can still upgrade to a six-digit Pin: tap Settings – Touch ID and Passcode – Enter your current passcode – Change Password. You’ll then be prompted to enter your current passcode one more time before creating a new one.

If you want an airtight password, read our guidance on how to create secure passwords.

Update your operating system 

Apple and Android both regularly make tweaks and changes to their software. This isn’t just about adding new functionality – these updates also contain important security fixes that protect your data from hackers. 

  • Android: Tap App – Settings – About phone – Software update – Update now. 
  • Apple: Tap Settings – General – Software Update. 

If there are updates ready to download, you’ll need to be connected to the internet and have the phone plugged in, or with around 50% or more battery, in order to complete the download.

Stick to official app stores 

Both Apple and Android have their own official app stores, although some manufacturers, including Samsung, have their own as well. Most malware that can affect a mobile phone comes from illegitimate apps downloaded from third-party app stores or other websites. It's always a good idea to stick to these official channels, where checks are in place to make sure available apps are genuine and safe to use.

Download a mobile security app

A mobile security app can help keep your phone clear of malware, and prevent you from falling victim to phishing scams. With these scams, you might receive a fake email claiming to be from HMRC or your bank, which try to lead you to a bogus website through a dodgy link that attempts to steal your data.

Some mobile security apps also have anti-theft features. These let you access your phone remotely through the app via the internet to help you find the location of your phone, block unauthorised access to your personal data, or even wipe it.

We've found brilliant mobile security apps that provide a strong defence against these digital demons, but also some that are too relaxed in combat. 

It's worth bearing in mind that apps for iOS don't have anti-malware functionality - that's because Apple vets each app that surfaces on the App Store, to make sure it's safe.

Head to our mobile security app reviews to make the best choice for your phone.

Fine-tune your app permissions

App permissions are used to control the data each of your apps has access to. On Apple’s iOS you’re able to fine-tune what each app can and can’t see. You can do the same for versions of Android from Marshmallow onwards, but not on Android Lollipop or an earlier iteration.

  • Android: Tap App - Settings - Apps. Touch the Gear icon and touch App Permission, select the app you want to manage, then tap Permissions and use the toggle to control what features and data you want it to have access to.
  • Apple: Tap Settings, scroll down until you find the app you want to check, tap the app, then use the slider to control what features and data you want it to have access to.

Take care when using public wi-fi 

Using public wi-fi networks means you don’t have to burn through your data allowance when out and about. But take care when using these free networks, as it's possible for an attack to happen when you're using unsecured wi-fi. 

This is known as a ‘man in the middle’ attack, and involves a hacker intercepting your logins, passwords or financial information as you use wi-fi. We advise that you avoid logging into your bank or entering any credit card or personal details while using free networks.

If you do need to check your bank account or make a payment, use your 3G or 4G connection instead – it’s much more secure. You may be using public wi-fi because you have poor 3G/4G coverage - but you're best advised to wait until the signal improves if you're accessing sensitive personal information.

To make sure your phone doesn’t automatically try to connect to wi-fi, you can turn it off using the steps below.

  • Android Swipe down from the top of the screen and tap the wi-fi symbol. It will show green when it’s activated and grey when it’s off. 
  • Apple Swipe up from the bottom of the screen and tap the wi-fi symbol. A message will appear to tell you that you’ve turned off the wi-fi.

Follow the steps and advice explained above and you're far less likely to be affected by threats to mobile phones. But it's always worth remaining vigilant and on the lookout for unusual behaviour to ensure you and your data stay safe.

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