Chicago Leads In Smartphone Thefts

Most mobile devices are stolen at public schools, followed by personal automobiles, and wind up as far away as Mongolia and other farflung places, says study.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

September 5, 2013

3 Min Read

9 Android Apps To Improve Security, Privacy

9 Android Apps To Improve Security, Privacy

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Has your smartphone been swiped? By the time you read this, it might be in Mongolia, Vietnam or even Zimbabwe.

That's one finding from a new report released this week by Absolute Software, which sells device tracking and recovery software and services for PCs, laptops and Android mobile devices. Overall, the company tracks 6 million devices -- 94% of which are corporate owned -- and said that customers filed 12,705 theft reports last year, some of which involved multiple devices.

In the United States, the largest number of mobile devices tracked by Absolute were stolen from the Chicago area, followed by New Orleans suburb Marrero, La., then Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston and Washington. The majority of devices were stolen from public schools, followed by personal automobiles, residential property, businesses or offices and universities.

Overseas, the leading number of thefts for the second year running were seen in Australia, followed by Canada, Great Britain, Brazil, Denmark and France. London placed first in the list of overseas cities where you're most likely to get your smartphone or tablet stolen. What's the leading scene of the crime? In Europe and the Middle East, most thefts occur from a business or office, followed by personal automobiles, residences, public schools, public transport and restaurants or cafes.

[ A biometric wristband gets to the heart of device security. Read more: Can You Hack A Heartbeat? ]

Many stolen devices end up being fenced locally. In one case involving the theft of 10 laptops from a music production company in Los Angeles, Absolute said that police eventually found nine of the devices at seven different people's homes, and that some of them had been purchased via Craigslist as well as a local pawn shop.

But stolen devices can, and often do, surface all over the world. In 2012, Absolute said that police investigations in which it participated traced customers' stolen devices to seven new countries: Cayman Islands, Curacao, Jordan, Gambia, Zimbabwe, Mongolia and Vietnam.

Thefts of mobile devices -- sometimes referred to as "apple picking" -- are on the rise, and public officials have noticed. Authorities in London, for example, have said that on average, 10,000 mobile devices get stolen there every month. That has led London to join the "Secure Our Smartphones" project launched earlier this year by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, which aims to find ways to remove the economic incentive associated with stolen smartphones and tablets, perhaps by adding remote, user-triggered kill switches to devices, or other types of disabling and recovery features.

When it comes to laptops, many businesses already use software-based full-disk encryption tools to automatically encrypt all data being stored on laptop hard drives. As a result, the information can't be retrieved if the device gets lost or stolen, nor will the business have to issue a costly data breach notification.

In the future, Absolute's report predicted, businesses will rely less on software-based encryption and more on self-encrypting drives, which automatically encrypt all information they store, with almost no performance hit. To date, however, only 1% of the devices that have Absolute's software monitors for encryption were seen to have self-encrypting drives.

Learn more about BYOD, MDM and other topics by attending the Interop conference track on Mobility in New York from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4.

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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