Lookout's latest feature puts phone thieves on alert

Its new Theft Alert feature sends an email alert anytime it detects that someone's doing something suspicious with your smartphone.

The Theft Alert feature added to Lookout’s mobile app sends you an email alert when somebody’s done something suspicious with your mobile device. Android devices will even snap a photo of the person fiddling with your phone.

The Theft Alert feature added to Lookout’s mobile app sends you an email alert when somebody’s done something suspicious with your mobile device. Android devices will even snap a photo of the person fiddling with your phone.

As sensible an idea as a mandatory kill switch feature would be for mobile devices, the people behind the Lookout security app for iOS and Android think that it's not the only thing you can do to safeguard your smartphone from theft.

A kill switch would allow mobile device owners to disable a lost or stolen phone, essentially turning it into a useless brick. That's fine if the phone has fallen into the wrong hands and can't be recovered, notes Greg Lou, senior product manager for Lookout's consumer team. But it's overkill if there's a chance of you finding your lost phone. What Lookout hopes to do is offer an intermediate step to phone owners that's not nearly so permanent as flipping a kill switch.

"We think [a kill switch feature] is a good thing if done properly," Lou said. "But it's a last-ditch resort for people. There are other things to do before going to the nuclear option."

Lookout is introducing what it hopes is one of those things into its mobile security app. On Wednesday, the company introduced a new Theft Alerts module to both the iOS and Android versions of its flagship consumer app that send out alerts anytime there's suspicious activity involving your phone. The idea, Lou says, is to "use software to tackle the phone theft issue."

Lookout's approach with the Theft Alert feature is to identify the most common actions that thieves take when they swipe a phone and use those actions to send email alerts to phone owners. Actions that can trigger alerts include entering the wrong passcode, removing the SIM card, turning off the device, enabling Airplane mode, and attempting to disable the Lookout software installed on the phone.

When activated, Lookout's Theft Alert feature will send an email that details the suspicious activity and includes your phone's location. On Android devices, Lookout will snap a picture of whoever's fiddling with your phone using the front-facing camera; that feature isn't available to iOS users, Lou says, due to restrictions imposed by Apple. (The iOS version of Theft Alerts also limits its alert triggers to enabling Airplane mode and removing the device's SIM card.)

The email sent via Lookout's Theft Alert feature includes links to locate your device, display a message to whoever's looking at your phone, lock and wipe the phone, and download data stored on the phone to a new device. The email includes links for contacting your carrier and filing a police report as well.

A welcome part of the Theft Alert feature will be the ability to customize exactly what triggers an alert email. Frequent travelers, for example, may not want to receive a frantic email from Lookout every time they turn on Airplane Mode before a flight, just as parents of small kids don't need to be notified should their 3-year-old grab their phone and tap in the wrong passcode (though the emailed picture of the pint-sized perpetrator will likely be adorable). Lookout lets you select which activities merit an alert.

It's not hard to figure out why Lookout is adding the Theft Alert feature to its mobile offering: smartphone thefts are on the rise. The company's own internal survey indicates that one in ten smartphone owners are the victims of smartphone theft, with 68 percent of the users it surveyed being unable to recover their stolen phones. Increased smartphone thefts have pushed lawmakers to introduce mandatory kill-switch proposals, with one such law making its way through California's legislature.

The Theft Alert feature is included in the Premium version of Lookout's mobile app, which costs $3 a month or $30 a year. In addition to Theft Alert, Lookout Premium users have access to safe browsing, privacy advisor, and enhanced backup features. The free version of Lookout lets users scan apps for malware, back up their call history and contacts, and locate missing devices.

Lou says existing Lookout Free users will get the chance to try out the Theft Alert feature until the end of September.

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