The next generation of smartphones will offer an abundance of features to their owners, ranging from the unprecedented convenience of browsing the Web at record speeds to purchasing coffee, gas or even train tickets by simply scanning their phones like credit cards.
But some identity-theft experts are concerned that mobile technology is actually outpacing phone users’ abilities to fully grasp it and to protect themselves.
Who’s smarter, the phone or its owner?
Near-field communication (NFC) is an emerging technology that could provide criminals with an attractive vector for attacks on unprotected phones, Ondrej Krehel, chief information security officer from Identity Theft 911, told SecurityNewsDaily.
NFC is a short-range wireless protocol that lets smartphones communicate with dedicated readers at cash registers and other point-of-purchase machines, much in the way an electronic toll tag mounted in a car communicates with a tollbooth reader. It will effectively turn future smartphones into payment devices.
Although NFC technology is not mainstream yet, a few phones, including the Google Nexus S and the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S II, already include it. NFC-reading software is part of the Android smartphone platform, and many more phones are expected to enable NFC in the next year or two, including the iPhone 5.
“Your phone is your credit card and wallet now,” Krehel’s IDT 911 colleague Ed Goodman told SecurityNewsDaily.
But there’s a downside to this high-tech convenience — one that's scarier than having to remember your friends’ numbers.
“If you drop [your phone] or lose it, it’s easier [for someone else] to use than having someone’s wallet,” Goodman said. “Nobody’s asking for your ID when you swipe your phone to pay at the gas station.”
Simply put, “Smartphones are smarter than their users,” Krehel said.
High-tech at a price
Mobile banking is another major convenience that could lead unsafe smartphone users into trouble.
Having your phone tied directly to your financial institution means that if someone gets their hands on your phone, they can easily get access to your funds, Krehel said.
Smartphones do offer banking customers the advantage of real-time monitoring of their accounts, Tom Oscherwitz, chief privacy officer at ID Analytics, told SecurityNewsDaily.
But the fact is “ fraudsters love phones,” Oscherwitz said — and if you’re unaware of that, then you’re at risk.
How to stay smartphone safe
“There’s no silver bullet to stopping identity theft,” Oscherwitz said. “You need layered protection.”
That means installing antivirus software on your Android or Blackberry smartphone or tablet. (There is no antivirus software for Apple iPhones and iPads — they are generally safe from malware infection unless "jailbroken" to run unauthorized apps.)
Companies such as Lookout Mobile and McAfee make smartphone and mobile device antivirus software that can provide users with a strong line of defense against identity theft and malware. Lookout Mobile’s antivirus package is free; McAfee VirusScan Mobile costs $29.99.
While a strong antivirus foundation is often necessary, Krehel and Goodman from IDT 911 said it’s even more important for end users to understand the security risks of new technologies before rushing to take advantage of them.