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A guide to keeping your Android smartphone or iPhone safe

Unless brazen thieves pull up to your house in a removal van with the aim of purloining all your electronic valuables, your desktop PC isn't likely to get stolen. It's too bulky, and a zillion cables connect it to other devices. And you're certainly not going to simply lose a PC!

However, your smartphone has nearly as much computing power as that PC (probably more, if the PC is old), and opportunities for smartphone loss or theft are almost limitless. We'll show you how to protect both your iPhone or Android device, and the personal data it contains.

Lock it up

If you haven't set up a screen-lock passcode to protect your smartphone, pull the device out right now and set one.

iPhone users can choose a simple four-digit numeric PIN or a more complex, longer alphanumeric passcode. The four-digit PIN is easier to enter due to the big buttons on the phone keypad, but the alphanumeric passcode is much more secure.

To minimise the annoyance of frequent passcode re-entry, you can set the phone to auto-lock after a delay of one to five minutes. (Note that iPhone 5S owners do, of course, have the added benefit of fingerprint security – but they’ll still need to enter a passcode as a backup).

Android users have choices that vary by device. Using a numeric or alphanumeric passcode is one option. Some devices support unlocking with a swipe pattern, a fingerprint sensor as seen on the iPhone 5S, or even using facial recognition. As with the iPhone you'll probably find it convenient to set a delay, so the phone doesn't lock immediately when you turn it off.

While a four-digit numeric PIN is handy on either type of device, you should know that law enforcement can crack four-digit PINs using advanced forensic software. If the lawmen can do it, chances are good that the crooks can do it too.

Don't break security

Numerous studies have shown that the built-in security in Apple's iOS works very well. It's not perfect, but it's significantly tighter than Android's.

The one way to lose this protection? Jailbreak your iPhone. According to researcher Dino Dai Zovi, a jailbroken iPhone is roughly as secure as a standard Android phone. Jailbreak it and you throw away your security advantage.

Rooting an Android phone is the equivalent of jailbreaking an iPhone. Some apps require rooting; don't install those apps.

Don't give permission

Every time you install an Android app, you have to approve a laundry list of permissions. Don't just click to allow them all blindly – read the entire list. If you find something illogical, like a flashlight app asking for access to your email contacts, cancel the installation. An Android app with no permissions whatever can still get a small amount of information about your phone, but if you don't review the permissions list you may be giving an app the keys to the kingdom.

You can only get iPhone apps from the App Store, but Android apps are available outside the Play store. Downloading from these other third-party marketplaces is a big risk, though – they may well pass off apps that contain malware. It really isn’t a good idea to stray from Google Play.

Apps for the iPhone go through a rigorous vetting by Apple. In theory, an app requiring unreasonable permissions wouldn't get past this process, though there have been slip-ups. The main area where you have a choice involves apps that want to use your location. Check the list of apps under Privacy, Location Services in the iPhone's Settings, and turn it off for any apps that don't truly need your location. Note that if you let the camera use location settings, every photo you upload reveals exactly where you were at the time.

Crank up security

When your smartphone's operating system gets an update, it almost always includes patches for security flaws. Don't delay; always install updates as soon as they're available. If your phone includes the option to use full device encryption, you could enable this for extra security.

Those using iPhones should check to see if backups are encrypted. If not, open iTunes, delete the old backups and set a password to encrypt new backups. You can also choose the Sim PIN option in Settings, Phone, to ensure that a thief can't simply eject your Sim and use it in another phone.

Get help

You wouldn't leave your PC naked and unprotected by an antivirus tool or security suite. Your smartphone, especially if it's an Android device, can benefit from a mobile security app, too.

In addition to protection against mobile malware, these tools often come with a variety of antitheft features. They'll let you check a lost or stolen phone's location, lock the phone remotely, wipe or encrypt personal data, or even snap a photo of the thief. Apple smartphone owners can set up Find My iPhone, too – see this article for further advice on that (and tips on what to do if you have had your iPhone stolen).

Smartphones put virtually all the power of a desktop computer in your pocket. Most of us would sooner go out without trousers than without our cherished phone. Take the precautions listed here to keep your smartphone and its data as safe as possible.