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Mobile Phones: Overall Security

Mobile Phones. We all have them now, don't we? Well, maybe not quite everyone - yet. But whether you're an Apple or Android (or Microsoft) user, mobile phones are now the dominant device for internet access for many people - but does that mean that they are safe? Well, mostly, yes, but not completely. Nothing ever is. Most of the time, you can access the internet via your mobile phone without any issues, but, precisely
because
they are small, light and mobile and contain or have access to a lot of our most important information, you should be aware of the dangers and take extra care about
how
you access the internet using them.
Mobile Phone But firstly, you need to keep your mobile device safe - physically. This means protecting it with some sort of case, preferably a 'book' type with a flap that covers the screen. The screen is very fragile and is your main interface with the device, so it is of the utmost importance to protect it. A screen protector is also a very good idea; either a plastic film type, or a toughened glass type, whichever you prefer. Neither is perfect, or can prevent damage to your screen in all circumstances, but both are better than nothing.
If you're using your phone while out and about, make sure you have a good hold of it, are shading it from other people's view (the whole phone, not just the screen) and be aware of other people around you, especially anyone on a bike, scooter (any type), or motorbike, who can appear and grab your phone in a flash - especially bikes, battery scooters and skateboards ('hover boards'), etc., as they are fast and virtually silent.
The favourites seem to be bikes and scooters, 'two-up', where the rider gets really close and the passenger grabs your phone. The same goes at home or in the car; don't leave your phone in view, or near an open window!
Also, think about how you carry your device. Make sure it is completely out of sight and not easy for someone to grab or take from your pocket or bag - phones are one of the pick-pockets favourites nowadays! Even if you have a cheap phone, it can still be a target, as most phones look alike from a distance! Be especially careful if you are abroad, as it's usually fairly obvious you're not a local and tourists are far more likely to be targeted. As well as keeping your phone physically safe, you also need to know how to keep your data safe if it is lost or stolen. That is what we will cover next:
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Even when you're
NOT
online - or even using your phone - security should still be your No.1 priority. If someone was to steal your phone, it could be very inconvenient, not to mention expensive! You might think that nobody can get into your accounts and apps. etc., if you have a screen password/PIN/etc. - which you most certainly
SHOULD
have - but, there are ways this can bypassed or got around.
One way for a thief to do this is by taking your SIM out and putting it into one of their own phones, where they can start to access your accounts and data by getting access to your phone calls, texts and possibly your email! With this, they can install the apps necessary to access your bank accounts etc., and request a new password and text confirmation to get full access. To protect yourself, you need to change the security code PIN on your SIM. Yes, you will have one. If you've not changed it, it will be the default one set by your network operator.
This will likely be 0000, 1234, or similar. You can find out what it is (either by trial and error, by 'goolging' it, or by contacting them) and then CHANGE it to something that is
NOT
the same as your screen/bank/etc. PIN! Make sure it is something that you can remember though, as you will need this if you reboot your phone, remove and refit your SIM, or move it to another phone. This is a very useful and imporant way to protect your data and accounts on your phone, so don't put it off - do it now!
Also, you need to be aware that it is possible for someone else to 'hijack' your phone number. How can they do that? Easy, by getting enough information about you to request a new SIM with your number and get it sent to a different address - or yours and intercept it. This is not as difficult as you might think, so keep your personal information
safe!
This means not giving away any personal information to anyone unless you absolutely
have to
. For instance, never tell anyone your birth day/date, or use it on sites like Facebook etc.. ONLY use it where you
HAVE to
, like bank accounts and official sites (HMRC, NHS, etc.), where you have to use accurate information. For any other site, use a fake date of birth (one you can remember, obviously) and possibly a fake name too - and ask people NOT to wish you Happy Birthday on Social Media - it's such a big personal data give-away!
So, how would you know if your number has been hijacked? Firstly, you should get a message or email from your service provider to let you know that you have requested a change of address (if this is what someone else has done). If this happens, call them
immediately
and tell them it was not you and that you have NOT changed address - and make sure they have not already dispatched a new SIM. However, this might not happen and the first thing you might know about it is that you suddenly have no service/signal on your phone. If this happens, check that the service status in your area and that there are no transmitter or other problems causing this.
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You can check this online using your phone (on Wi-Fi), a laptop, or someone elses device, but check quickly, as if there are no service problems in your area, you again need to contact your service provier
immediately
to find out what the problem is and rectify it before anyone has the chance to access your information and accounts. If you find that someone else has changed your address and/or requested a new SIM, get this sorted out with your supplier, then quickly call and suspend your credit and debit cards and bank accounts and request new cards.
Don't
just assume that these are safe if a new SIM has been requested but not yet sent, get your accounts suspended and request new cards anyway! Yes, it's inconvenient, but the banks will not care and it's a LOT more convenient than risking losing control of your cards and potentially money from your bank or credit card accounts! If you don't tell them, you may very well be liable for any losses and unable to claim them back.
Just as imporant as being careful with your phone and when using any websites or apps, you need to keep your operating system (iOS, Android, etc.), Apps and Internet Security Software up to date (where this is possible); just the same as for any other device. You also need to practice 'Safe Internetting' and no, this is not what you get from keeping your mobile phone in a rubber case! These issues are all covered elsewhere on our website, so we're not going to re-iterate it all here (go to our Aware page). Generally, what applies to one device will apply and work on a mobile device, though the actual Hardware, OS, Apps and Software will be specific, not only to what mobile device(s) you have (Phone, Tablet, etc.), but also to your specific Platform (another name for your Operating System, or 'OS'), and to the specific Make, Model and Version/Issue/Generation of your device.
Connecting to the internet with a mobile phone can be done in various ways. The options are;
  • Mobile Data, via your mobile phone Service Provider.
  • Wi-Fi, at home, or a known safe source, like at a friend's house.
  • Wi-Fi, outside, from your service provider, or provided by a café, shop, airport, etc..
  • Local 'Hot Spot' Wi-Fi, shared from another mobile device.
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Now, there are many things to consider for all of these options, so we'll take them in turn.

Direct Mobile Data
on your handset, via your Service Provider. This means using some of your 'data allowance' from whichever company you pay for your mobile phone and/or service, wherever you have a good enough data signal. Many people have a combined phone and service on a contract with their provider, which pays for both the handset itself (iPhone, Android Phone, or whatever) and your service and connection, which will include a certain number of minutes for phone calls, number of text messages and an amount of data, measured in GigaBytes (GB), such as 4GB, 8GB, 20GB, 100GB, unlimited GB, per month, or whatever your plan includes.
Most plans nowadays, whether for a handset or SIM only (where you just pay for your connection and a certain number of minutes phone calls, texts and data allowance, allocated to a SIM inserted into a phone that you have bought yourself) come with unlimited phone calls and text messages. Where they differ greatly is in the amount of data you can use, plus some other services, like MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service: sending photo/video messages). Some data allowances are as low as 500 MegaBytes (MB), which is fine for people who rarely, if ever, need or want to use the internet on the move, and go up to unlimited plans, which (potentially) allow you to access the internet as much as you want.
Be careful when signing up to a new contract, but especially any plan which claims to let you use a high-GB, or unlimited data, especially if it locks you in for any period more than one month, as there can be hidden (often called 'Fair Use') limitations. There are all sorts of contract options whether signing for a complete package, or a SIM only service. This ranges from monthly/month-to-month (so-called 'zero months' contract - but usually one month's notice to leave), 6 months, one year, or 18 months - or more. Make sure the service is right for you before signing up to a long contract, especially if you might move house in that time, as you can't guarantee that the same level of reception will be available somewhere else and you may not be able to cancel - though if you move and end up with no useable signal, that IS a valid and good reason for being able cancel your contact early, you just need to ensure this is clearly communicated to the company if you wish to cancel for that reason!
Mobile Phone by a window A common limitation of many mobile contracts is use of data when travelling abroad. Some plans still include the use of data while travelling abroad (called data roaming) to certain countries, like the EU (but often NOT countries like Switzerland), though not quite so many nowadays for UK residents since 'Brexit'. Be careful though, this is almost always limited to the phone or device that the SIM is physically installed in. This if fine for most people, but don't think that you can take a tablet or laptop with you and share your connection with that using a Local Hot-Spot (also often called 'Tethering'), set up on your phone. That is generally NOT allowed. Because of 'Brexit', limitations and charges on phone calls and texts are also common now, so check this
before
you take out your contract, and before you travel to any countries you want to visit!
Some companies don't even allow HotSpot use while you are at home in the UK (or whichever is your home country), or will impose a limit on how much data can be used via a HotSpot, such as stating 'unlimited' data on your phone, but only allow 30GB of this via a 'HotSpot' on your device: Check for 'Unlimited HotSpot' in your terms and conditions, or you may well hit problems or face high charges when you need this access most! Direct Mobile Data is, however, probably as safe as connecting to the internet gets using a mobile phone, assuming everything else being equal and, given the low cost plans available nowadays, shouldn't be a limitation for most people on price or security grounds.
Home Wi-Fi
is, or should be, fairly simple and safe for most people nowadays, especially With modern broadband internet and decent connection speeds, an always on instant connection is available for the vast majority of people - in most towns and cities at least. If you live in the country, or even on the outskirts of some towns or cities, you may not be so lucky. However, if you have, or are buying/renting a new or nearly new house, check to see what type of connection and deals are available. If it's fibre-to-the-home (often without a standard phone line), you may find that your (extra fast) fibre connection is only available from a very few suppliers - and may not be very cheap at that!
Your broadband and Wi-Fi - whichever type you have - is only as safe as the setup on your router though, so make sure you read the section on that, and, make sure nothing you connect to it (baby monitor, video doorbell, outside security camera, etc.,) is using it's 'default' password - change it for something far more secure as soon as you set it up! Lastly, if you are using Wi-Fi at a friend's house, you might want to ask about their security too. After all, if they have given you access, who else have they given their password to?
Public Wi-Fi
while out and about can be helpful if you have a poor phone signal, or not much data allowance, but you need to use extreme caution here, especially if you are using 'free' Wi-Fi. If you are using free Wi-Fi, whatever you do, do NOT access Internet Banking, or anything else that involves paying for something, or logging into any account of yours that holds ANY sensitive data of yours, or shares a login or password of an account that does! You should also be cautious about doing any of this using ANY other public Wi-Fi. By this, I mean ONLY do this if you ABSOLUTELY NEED to do this NOW! If not, then don't, wait until you have secure private Wi-Fi at home, or personal data and a good phone signal available.

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Wi-Fi from a shared device
can
be very safe, but it depends on many of the same criteria as for Home Wi-Fi. What the device is you're sharing from, how it's set up, what security software and app are installed on it, who it belongs to and who else is also sharing the connection! If it's your own phone, then you are in control and it should be pretty safe. However, all devices are open to being compromised and of course, you are always open to fake or unsafe websites and to email or messaging scams. So, read the page about being Web Aware and make sure you are doing everything you can to keep safe online.
However, one of the best ways to make any of these connections - or a broadband connection - safe (or at least a lot safer) is to use a Vitual Private Network (VPN). This is a combination of software you install and a service which connects you to the internet via a 'safe' server, hence giving you a 'virtual' private network connection. There are some free VPNs and they can be good for certain people and uses, but there are generally severe restriction on them, such as very limited data limits, low bandwidth (speed), availability in or from certain countries or regions, and often obtrusive ads. Far better to go for one of the paid for services, which are also more likely to be even safer still. Prices vary a lot and it may seem like an unnecessary expense, but, if you use your phone or broadband connection for important business, or simply for internet banking etc., it could just turn out to be the best decision you ever make! See the list below for some of the better well-known services, though there are many, many more.
  • CyberGhost
  • ExpressVPN
  • IPVanish
  • NordVPN
  • Norton Secure VPN
  • Private Internet Access VPN
  • ProtonVPN
  • Surfshark
  • TorGuard VPN
  • TunnelBear VPN
One of the prime uses of a VPN is to allow you safe access to secuity-conscious sites when you're abroad, but they can only do this if configured correctly
and
if the VPN being used can be configured to act as if you are in your home country. So, be careful before signing up to one and check that your 'home' country is on the list of their 'virtual' home options before doing so, as some are quite limited in this respect. VPNs are not without fault and can be troublesome at times, including failure to connect or droping your connection, so also do your homework and check for what other people have to say about them before making a choice. Ideally, go for one that offers a money-back guarantee within 30 days (or more).
One of the options to buying a VPN service, is using a seperate Browser that has a built-in VPN, or VPN option, like Opera or Tor, which has the advantage of allowing you to use your usual Browser for general use, or for particular sites that might not work well with a VPN. Some can, in some circumstances, exclude access to users where the exact sites you may have wanted it for, if it cannot distinguish your location (country), especially if you have problems using a VPN, or setting it up correctly.
Another alternative is a VPN add-on to your current browser, but remember, like using a specific VPN-enabled browser, like Opera or Tor, that this will only give you VPN protection while using that browser and not protect any other connections, including email. While Opera is a fairly standard browser with VPN added, Tor, although similar in it's being built on a standard browser, is quite different and can be very useful for keeping your identity secret. However it can be very slow and takes time to connect to it's own network when starting. It can be especially slow for for video, as it uses discrete 'Bridges' to connect to sites, which can slow things to a crawl. It can also be said to 'alert' sites to the fact that you are attempting to hide you identity and therefore by default, you must be a criminal!
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Lastly, remember that with all of these options, that a VPN or other similar connection only makes your
connection
itself safer. While this can be great, especially when using public Wi-Fi for banking or other sensitive internet use, you
STILL
have to keep aware and practice safe internet activity as usual; fraudulent activity can still take place just as easily over a 'safe' connection, as it can over a standard https connection - it won't help you one bit if you get scammed and personal information is
safely
transferred to a scammer's computer, or your money is
safely
transferred to a scammer's bank account!
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This page was last updated on: 15 November 2023
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