While state lawmakers consider ways to combat soaring smartphone thefts by mandating "kill switches" that allow users to remotely erase and disable their phones, there are steps you can take now to do the same thing.
Just about every smartphone sold these days has built-in security features or available apps to better secure their data. And the features typically are easy to configure, yet most users don't bother.
Securing your device won't prevent it from being stolen, but it can block thieves from accessing all the personal data stored on your phone.
Smartphone theft has been a hot topic because of some alarming statistics. Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, estimates that 3.1 million smartphones were stolen in the United States last year, nearly double the number stolen in 2012. Americans lost and never recovered an additional 1.4 million phones, according to the consumer organization. Some victims have even been killed for their phones.
The cell phone industry has taken some steps to address the problem. Wireless carriers have created a database of stolen phones and have promised not to allow any phones in the database to be used on their networks. They've also pledged to install anti-theft software on all smartphones by July of next year.
But consumer advocates and law-enforcement officials have complained that those measures have been inadequate. Many stolen phones are resold overseas and activated on carriers that haven't signed on to the U.S. carriers' database. And the anti-theft software in place on phones now isn't turned on by default and may not be even under the carriers' new proposal.
So lawmakers have been stepping in. This week, the California Senate passed a bill that would require all smartphones sold in the state to have a "kill switch" that would allow users to remotely wipe and disable their phones. The legislation would require the feature to be turned on by default.
It's unclear whether the state Assembly will pass the legislation, or whether Gov. Jerry Brown will sign it. And the law wouldn't kick in until July of next year and wouldn't apply to older phones.
But here are some easy steps you can take right now to protect the data stored in your phone:
Set a passcode. All major smartphone operating systems -- Apple's iOS, Android, Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10 -- allow users to require a passcode before the device can be unlocked. Without the passcode, thieves can't see your data.
Passcodes do require users to make a choice between security and convenience. The longer or more complicated the passcode, the more secure your device will be -- but also the more difficult and time consuming it will be to enter.
Fortunately, you have other options on some devices. Apple's iPhone 5s and Samsung's Galaxy S5 have fingerprint readers built into their home buttons that can be used instead of a passcode to unlock a device. Some Android devices include a facial recognition capability that can serve the same function. And many Android devices offer owners the option to use a pattern drawn on a three-by-three grid of dots as an unlock code.
Turn on the "find my phone" feature. Nearly every new smartphone includes a feature that allows users to find and remotely lock or erase it if lost.
On the iPhone, the feature is called "Find My iPhone," and users are prompted to configure it when they set up a new device. If you haven't turned it on already, you can do so by going to the iCloud area in the Settings app and flipping the feature's switch to on.
On Android devices, the feature is called Android Device Manager. Users have to turn on the feature in the Google Settings app, which is a separate app from the general phone Settings application.
Back up your phone. Perhaps the worst thing about losing a smartphone -- other than being out the money to replace it -- is losing all the data that was on it, particularly irreplaceable things like pictures and videos.
But all the major operating systems provide ways of backing up phones. Although each provider typically offers a free amount of storage, you may have to pay extra to back up your entire device to a cloud service. Apple, for example, charges $40 a year for 20 gigabytes of storage on iCloud.
That may sound like a lot at first blush, but it could feel like a bargain if your device gets stolen.