How to keep your mobile devices safe this holiday season

'Tis the night before Christmas, and all through the house not a creature is stirring, not even your phone. Wait. What? Where’s your phone?

Oh, it’s in your pants. Nope. Then it must be in your coat. Nope (panic begins to set in). In the bathroom? Nope. Under the bed? Nope. Hello, panic. You call it on the house phone and listen for the ring. No ring.

Don’t let this happen to you. Without your phone during the holidays, you won’t be able to hide in the bathroom at the in-laws and play Scrabble. You won’t be able to play fantasy football during dinner. You won’t be able to bet on sports during midnight mass (cue lightening bolt). In short, it could ruin Christmas.

If it happened, you’d certainly not be alone. Everybody loses a phone at one time or another. And Christmastime is a particularly popular time for loosing phones: Lookout Security says Americans lost $11 million worth of mobile devices around Christmastime last year.

Of couse, you can prevent it, or at least prepare for it. Instead of laying out the normal set of device security tips, let’s look at it differently. Here are the most likely ways you might lose your device this holiday season, and some smart ways of mitigating those risks beforehand.

Don't ruin your trip to Grandma's by losing your phone.

You leave it on top of the car before setting out for Grandma’s house. Sounds like a crazy stupid thing you would never do, right? But in hindsight, the way you lost your phone usually seems a little stupid too, right? One approach is to make a mental note to make darn sure your phone is sitting in the cupholder before you put the car in drive.

You leave it in a cab coming back from the Christmas party. This is a double threat. A huge number of phones get left behind in cabs, so many that some cab drivers have begun asking anybody exiting the cab if they have their phone. Add to that circumstance the fact that two thirds of phone losses happen between 9 p.m. and 2 p.m. (in other words, during drinking hours), and you can see why Christmas parties and cab rides home could be a bad mix for your phone.

You leave it on an airplane. Never, never put your smartphone or tablet in the little pouch on the back of the seat in front of you. Thousands of devices have been lost when travellers have stowed them there, then forgot and left the plane without them. It’s a temptation to put your device there, because you often have your hands full with your bag, your magazine, your cup of coffee, or whatever, and you need a quick, convenient way to free up one of your hands.

You leave it in a restroom somewhere. We used to read magazines and newspapers in there, but now we use Words With Friends and Scrabble. But you make the mistake of putting your phone down beside the toilet when it's time to exit. Or you place it on the sink while you wash your hands. Whatever. Whenever you take your phone out in any restroom anywhere, never set it down in there. Always put it back in your pocket.

You drop it in the toilet late in the evening at a Christmas party. You're a little tipsy to begin with, and the next thing you know, you're looking down at your phone, and it’s underwater. Sure, you can try the rice trick, but that doesn’t always work. There’s nothing wrong with using your phone when you've been drinking—just make sure that no bodies of water are around.

A little preparation

Unfortunately, phones and tablets are very easy things to use. But you can be prepared.

Android Device manager displays your device's location on a map and lets you remotely wipe it, among other things.

Lots of remote lock-and-wipe third-party apps are available from the Android Play store. But Google now offers a slick remote lock-and-wipe feature called Android Device Manager as part of the the OS (Android 2.3 and up). You just go to the Android Device Manager page on your computer, and you'll see your device listed, and its current location displayed on a map. From there, you just follow the prompts to either ring the device, set up a security password, or lock and wipe the device.

If you have an iPhone, download (if you haven't already) the app "Find My iPhone." It shows where your phone is on Google Maps, and you will be able to lock your phone, erase your data, and send a message to your lock screen.

If you use a Windows device, you don’t need an app. Just go to windowsphone.com and click My Phone to erase your data.

Keep a record of your phone’s IMEI number. This is a unique code for your phone, and can be used by authorities to track and recover it.

Keep your contact details on the home screen of the phone. If you lose your phone chances, are it’ll end up in the hands of a decent person who would like to return it to you. You can put your name and selected contact information on your phone’s home screen (this can usually be done in the Display section of your phone’s General Settings) and also some words about your willingness to come and pick up the phone or to pay for shipment.

Back up your contacts. Make sure to periodically back up your contacts—having to recreate them on a new phone is a time-consuming drag.

If the unthinkable happens

If you are fairly certain that your phone or tablet is really gone, contact your wireless service provider. Make sure you have all the account details you normally use when you call your provider for other reasons. You’ll be able to shut down your account or put it on hold to prevent some stranger from using a bunch of voice and data services on your dime.

If you’re sure your phone or tablet is lost, it’s a good idea to reset the passwords for any important accounts that can be accessed through your device.

Even if you are able to remotely wipe your phone, it may still be a good idea to create new passwords for your important accounts (email, banking, and so on) that could be accessed through the device. Then reset passwords for less important accounts like Facebook and Twitter.

The holiday season presents us with lots of opportunities to lose our phones and tablets. It’s a time of late nights, parties, and general imbibing. This year, keep those risky holiday scenarios in mind, and take steps to make sure your mobile device makes it safely into the new year.

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