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How to protect yourself from iPhone thieves locking you out of your own device

A complex and concerning method of gaining control over a user’s iPhone and permanently locking them out appears to be on the rise.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, some iPhone thieves are exploiting a security setting called the recovery key. This setting makes it nearly impossible for owners to access their photos, messages, data, and more once exploited. Some victims also reported that their bank accounts were drained after the thieves accessed their financial apps.

However, it’s important to note that this type of takeover is difficult to execute. It requires a criminal to observe an iPhone user entering their passcode—possibly by looking over their shoulder at a bar or sporting event—or to manipulate the device’s owner into sharing their passcode. This is all before the device is physically stolen.

Once the thief has the passcode, they can change the device’s Apple ID, turn off “Find My iPhone” to avoid being tracked, and reset the recovery key, a complex 28-digit code meant to protect the owner from online hackers.

Apple requires this key to reset or regain access to an Apple ID, enhancing user security. However, if a thief changes it, the original owner will not have the new code and will be locked out of the account.

“We sympathize with people who have had this experience and we take all attacks on our users very seriously, no matter how rare,” an Apple spokesperson told CNN. “We work tirelessly every day to protect our users’ accounts and data and are always investigating additional protections against emerging threats like this one.”

Apple’s website warns, “You’re responsible for maintaining access to your trusted devices and your recovery key. If you lose both of these items, you could be locked out of your account permanently.”

Jeff Pollard, VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research, suggested that Apple should offer more customer support options and ways for users to authenticate and reset these settings.

For now, there are several steps users can take to protect themselves.

Protect the Passcode

The first step is safeguarding the passcode.

An Apple spokesperson told CNN that people can use Face ID or Touch ID when unlocking their phone in public to avoid revealing their passcode to onlookers.

Users can also set up a longer, alphanumeric passcode that’s harder to guess. Device owners should change the passcode immediately if they believe someone else has seen it.

Screen Time Settings

Another precaution is a hack not officially endorsed by Apple but circulating online. Within the iPhone’s Screen Time settings, which allow guardians to set up restrictions on how kids use the device, there is an option to set up a secondary password required before changing an Apple ID.

By enabling this, a thief would need to enter the secondary password before changing the Apple ID password.

Back Up Your Phone Regularly

Lastly, users can protect themselves by regularly backing up their iPhone via iCloud or iTunes so data can be recovered if the phone is stolen. Users may also want to store important photos and sensitive files in another cloud service such as Google Photos, Microsoft OneDrive, Amazon Photos, or Dropbox.

While this won’t stop a thief from gaining access to the device, it should mitigate some of the damage if it happens.

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