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Lessons for Phone Security

Mar 10, 2020 | Thomas Smith


As society is increasingly dependent on mobile devices, there are some considerations to protect yourself and those you love from being swindled.

Thomas, his wife and two sons in background

Having 4 sons provides almost unlimited fodder for a parenting blog.  But since this is not a parenting blog, I am careful to limit my material to financial topics.  

Let me take you back to Fall College football season while my wife and I were visiting our two middle sons at their college. It was “Parents weekend”, and we had flown up to attend the game and tailgate.  We were there to honor our two middle sons, a Junior and a Freshman, and members of a local Fraternity.  

In the midst of this time together, on Saturday morning, we received a phone call from our “adult” and “employed” oldest son living in Dallas. He indicated that he had his phone stolen the evening prior, and needed my immediate assistance. I instructed him to transfer the balances of his bank accounts to me, to prevent the phone thief from electronically wiping him out in the event he were to gain access to his online credentials. We then went to work trying to locate his phone using the “Find my Friends” feature on his iPhone. This was not successful because…it turns out….his password was “1234”, and we determined that the thief had already commandeered the phone due to his lack of phone security. We then went to work notifying ATT that the phone was stolen, filing a claim, paying the deductible, and securing a replacement phone. This was all done from the balcony of the Fraternity via a phone conference with ATT, and my oldest son in Dallas.  

Let me pause here to acknowledge that this was very upsetting to us, as parents, to be solving this “crisis” while we were trying to enjoy quality time with our two middle sons. After all….our oldest son is supposed to be “on his own”.  He is gainfully employed at a Big 4 CPA firm, and except for the family phone plan…off the payroll!

Over the course of the next 2 hours, we solved the immediate needs of our recalcitrant son, bid him farewell, and enjoyed the remainder of our weekend with our two middle sons.   Fast forward 2 weeks later: my oldest son has received his new phone, has activated it, and is reconciling his bank statement when he discovers a strange Venmo distribution in the amount of $2500 on the day his phone was stolen! This distribution occurred within 30 minutes of his phone being stolen on Friday night…well before notifying me on Saturday morning. For those uninformed…Venmo is a convenient third-party app that allows a subscriber to transfer funds from his own bank account to the bank account of any other subscriber.  It is quite popular with young adults, college, and high school kids, and the parents of these young adults. To be clear…it is the cash transfer mechanism of choice for a large sector of young adults. 

Evidently, our swift thief deftly gained access to his phone (remember 1234), transferred the Venmo daily max ($2500) into his own account, and probably would have continued a daily drain of $2500 had he not transferred the balance of his accounts to me on Saturday morning. I will never forget his heartfelt agony: “Dad….that was 35% of my net worth!  How would you feel if someone stole 35% of your net worth?”

He filed a police report and notified Venmo.  Surprisingly, Venmo was remarkably easy to get in touch with and quickly returned his stolen funds, as they were able to see the track history of this thief. 

So why am I telling you this story? Well, our society is becoming increasingly dependent on mobile devices, and mobile banking. If my CPA (and naïve) son, can get swindled, most anyone can get swindled. How can one protect against this?  What lessons were learned from this experience?  


  1. Employ a 7 digit passcode on your phone.  This was the single biggest mistake our oldest son made.  He used a 4 digit easy code that is easy to guess. Once a thief gains access to your phone, he/she can then get into any applications that are not password protected…in this case Venmo, an app that links directly to your bank account.
  2. Employ a password on all apps. This was the second big mistake that our son made. Venmo allows you to enable touch ID, or a physical password as an extra layer of protection prior to engaging in a  transaction. Neither of which was enabled for him. 
  3. If your phone has Touch ID, or even facial recognition, consider using these features in tandem with a password.   I cannot opine on the efficacy of one security feature over another, but I tend to think both are more secure than a just a password. 
  4. Change your password frequently, say every 3 months, on all financial related apps. Do this even if you enable face recognition, or touch ID. My son did not do this. 
  5. Check your online accounts frequently for fraudulent activity. Reconcile your bank statements, or at a minimum, review your bank statements for irregular or unusual activity. My son did do this…yay!
  6. If you get swindled, file a police report.  This is important.  We are told that the ONLY reason Venmo so quickly refunded his money, is because he already had a correctly filed police report to submit with his inquiry. A police report demonstrates a sincerity to your inquiry. 
  7. If you get swindled, act quickly. My son waited 12 hours before notifying anyone of his theft, if he had acted quickly on the evening of the theft, perhaps he could have prevented the financial errors. 
  8. Consider de-linking your banking accounts from Third party apps like Venmo. This requires some maintenance because now you must keep enough “cash” in your Venmo account to facilitate payments to other subscribers.  This is ultimately one the most secure tricks of the trade, since only the cash in the Venmo account is subject to malfeasance, instead of your entire bank account.

I hope you can use this little vignette as a tool to help you stay safe and secure while enjoying the many benefits of technology, and specifically your smartphone. If you have any good tools or techniques, I would love hear about them.

Stay safe…Thomas in Tyler. 


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