Make sure your phone is secure in public by applying these top tips. How to avoid thieves, hackers and snoopers

Is your phone at risk from hackers, thieves and snoopers when you are out in public? It probably is, unless you have use these 9 ways to secure it. Here is what you need to do to be safe.

A mobile phone can cost up to $1000 and it is probably the most valuable item you have on you when you are out in public. It is a target for thieves and hackers, but there are ways to protect your device from both.

Most of these tips are quite general, so although a Samsung Galaxy S6 has been used as an example, you can apply them to most Android phones and even Apple iPhones. The menus and screens might be slightly different on your phone, but the security techniques all apply.

Related: 11 ways to increase iPhone security

1 Set a PIN or password

This is a no-brainer and by far the most important thing to do when you leave home with your phone is to make sure that it is locked with a PIN, password or fingerprint.

Pickpockets take phones from bags, jacket pockets and wherever else you might carry it. If your phone is not locked then they have full access to everything on the device.

People are always fiddling with their phones and instead of putting them in a pocket or bag where they are out of sight and more secure, we put them on the table or the seat for convenience. That tempts thieves to swipe them.

Thieves will phone foreign countries and run up large bills, they will access your email and social accounts, and they might gather information in order to steal your identity.

If your phone is locked then there isn’t a lot they can do with it.

Go to Settings > Lock screen and security > Screen lock type.

Set the screen lock type on an Android phone

The number of options depend on the phone, but there may be:

Pattern: Draw on the screen and trace a secret pattern, often by connecting dots in a grid layout.

PIN: At least a four-digit number should be set for reasonably security. Longer PINs offer even better security.

Password: This is potentially the highest security, but only if the password is long, complicated and hard to guess. Don’t use your pet dog’s name or anything else your friends can guess. Unfortunately, it is a pain to type in long and complicated passwords, so few people choose this option.

Fingerprints: This is usually not used by itself. After setting a PIN or password, you can make it easy to unlock your phone by adding a fingerprint.

2 Set a short screen timeout

When you use a phone and then put it down, the screen will switch off after a certain length of time. When it does, it can also locks the phone automatically.

That period between you putting down your phone and it locking is an opportunity for a thief. They could take it and because it is unlocked, they can use it.

Set a short screen timeout and lock the phone quickly when you put it down for extra security.

Go to Settings > Display to set the screen timeout. Then go to Settings > Lock screen and security > Secure lock settings to lock the screen with the power button or after a period of time.

Lock your phone with the power button

There is also an option to erase the phone back to factory settings after a certain number of failed attempts to enter the PIN or password.

3 Turn off Bluetooth

If Bluetooth is turned on, the phone will try to connect to other Bluetooth devices and they will try to connect to the phone. You need to confirm connections, but while reaching for the phone in a pocket or bag you might accidentally hit the Accept button on the screen.

A hacker might try to tempt you by sending photos or other files via Bluetooth. Never accept connections in a public place. You never know whether viruses, spyware, Trojans or other malware is being transferred to your phone.

Turn off Bluetooth on Android phones to increase security

Pull down from the top of the screen. There may be a shortcut button to turn off Bluetooth. If not, go into Settings and turn it off from there.

4 Turn off Wi-Fi

As you walk around in public places, the Wi-Fi in your phone will try to connect to the networks it finds. There are a lot of Wi-Fi networks around you in the high street, shopping malls, cafes, hotels and so on.

Each time your phone connects with a wireless network, it provides a little information about you. It can be used to track your location too. Go to Settings > Privacy and safety > Location and you will see that Wi-Fi networks are used to locate you.

Turn off Wi-Fi on your phone to increase security

If you are not using the Wi-Fi then turn it off to increase the security. Pull down from the top and press the Wi-Fi shortcut button or go into Settings and turn it off.

5 Beware of fake Wi-Fi

Fake Wi-Fi hotspots are easy to set up and it doesn’t take much in the way of hardware. A hacker could create one in a public place with no security. You need to access the internet, you check whether there are any free Wif-Fi hotspots around you, you find one and connect.

Without realising it, you have connected to the hacker’s network and everything you do goes through them. They can inspect the traffic and discover emails, usernames, maybe even passwords.

A hacker might even set the name of their free Wi-Fi to one you are familiar with, like McDonalds, Starbucks, Costa or some other common cafe with free Wi-Fi. You think you are connecting to the cafe’s Wi-Fi, but really it is the hacker’s.

Beware of fake Wi-Fi in public places. It is not common, but it is possible.

6 Use a VPN on your phone

Sometimes you want to use public Wi-Fi, such as to access email, the internet, social networks and so on. If the mobile data is limited on your plan then public Wi-Fi is a way to keep your data usage down because Wi-Fi data is unlimited.

If you must use Wi-Fi in public places, use a VPN. This is a Virtual Private Network, which is a way of encrypting internet traffic. Enable a VPN and everything between your phone and the VPN server is encrypted, so even if someone could intercept your internet activities, they could not tell what you were doing.

A VPN makes the internet private and much more secure when using public Wi-Fi.

There are many VPN apps in the Google Play Store, but I am using NordVPN (affiliate link). I got a great deal on a NordVPN plan that has no bandwidth limit and over 700 servers around the world.

 NordVPN on Android secures the internet NordVPN on Android secures the internet

Turn on NordVPN and the Wi-Fi is secure.

7 Use secure https sites

If you are using the web in Chrome on your phone, look for the green padlock and a URL that begins with https:// in the address box. It means that the website is secure.

A secure website is essential when using online banking, online stores, auctions and other places where you are required to enter personal information, use credit cards, but goods and services, and so on.

 Use an https connection for online shopping

An https connection is not required for reading web pages though.

8 Use incognito window

For extra privacy, Chrome has an incognito mode that hides your identity and lets you browse the web anonymously. When a Chrome incognito window is closed, the browsing history is discarded.

Use incognito mode when browsing in public. It adds a little extra security.

Use a Chrome incognito tab to hide your identity

In Chrome, press the three dots in the top right corner for the menu and then select Incognito.

9 Track your phone location

Your phone might be accidentally lost or stolen when you are out. You could leave it in a bar or cafe, taxi or bus. Where is it?

It is possible to track the location of your phone and this means you have a chance of getting it back. If the phone is switched off or the battery is dead then you won’t be able to see the current location, but you can see its last reported position. This at least gives you a place to start looking.

On old phones with old versions of Android, get Android Device Manager from the Google Play Store. This has an option to track the location.

The app is not needed with recent phones and versions of Android because it is built in. On a Samsung Galaxy S6 with Android 6 for example, go to Settings > Privacy and location > Location.

Make sure Location is turned on and press Google Location History at the bottom. Turn on Location History and turn on the switch for this device.

Track the location of an Android phone

To see your phone’s last reported location, on a computer go to Android Device Manager. It shows where the phone is on a Google Map.

Many security apps provide device location features. If you have Kaspersky, AVG, Norton, or similar security apps, check in the settings for lost/stolen device location tracking.