If the thought of someone stealing your smartphone sends you into a panic, you're certainly not alone. In fact, as many as 16 million Americans fear theft of their smartphone even more than they fear identity theft. As irrational as that may seem, they're right to be concerned.

The reason that the theft of a smartphone is such a worrisome event is that for many, their smartphone has become the key to their whole lives. It might include access to a bank account, personal information, various payment services (Apple Pay, PayPal), and any number of other valuable bits of data. Recently, thieves have even started to target digital wallets, using stolen phones to make off with cryptocurrency that has no chance of being recovered.

Even those that are careful to avoid storing any valuable data on their smartphones are at risk. That's because the devices themselves are worth so much money when resold through illicit channels. All of those potential means of criminal gain have made smartphones a lucrative target and has spawned a thriving ecosystem of fraud. Here's an examination of the cycle of theft, and what smartphone owners can do to try to stay safe.

Countering the Countermeasures

The rising level of smartphone theft has led many to rely on biometric security measures like the fingerprint scanners offered by many modern handsets. Unfortunately, researchers have found that the devices aren't very secure and can often be unlocked using falsified fingerprint images. Even Apple's much-vaunted security systems haven't held up.

When Apple introduced Face ID for their latest handsets, it took hackers just 9 days to find a way to bypass it. If that wasn't frightening enough, there's an entire range of purpose-built software tools available to help thieves unlock stolen iPhones; many of which also include features to help steal iCloud credentials.

Black Markets Abound

Since the on-device security measures don't do much to secure smartphones after they're stolen, a global network of resellers has emerged to traffic in the ill-gotten hardware. Using the global reach of the internet, they've been able to move stolen phones out of their country of origin, thus evading the bans placed by carriers on phones that have been reported stolen.

Many of the phones stolen in the U.S. end up in places like Argentina and Eastern Europe, where secondhand smartphones can fetch upwards of $2100 per unit.In return, phones stolen in those places make their way into reseller and repair shops all over the country here. It's a massive – and profitable – cycle of crime.

The Few Viable Defenses

Short of staying extra vigilant or leaving their phone locked up in a safe, there's little that end users can do to prevent the physical theft of their smartphone. That means their only option is to guard against the secondary damage of having their data stolen from the unit. As we've already indicated, there are no foolproof methods.

To safeguard smartphone data, it's important to create a layered defense that will slow down a thief. Using strong passwords and two-factor authentication are great, but mean little when not paired with the ability to remove wipe the device. In addition, it's crucial for users to maintain backups of their phone's data, and to enable encryption on the device to slow down or stop unauthorized access to it if it is lost or stolen. Also, if you're buying a secondhand phone, make sure to check the smartphone's IMEI against a database of stolen devices. That will help you avoid purchasing a phone that's been preloaded with spyware designed to steal your data.

An Escalating Threat

With each new generation of smartphone, the threat continues to grow. As the latest phones have topped the $1000 MSRP mark, their value on the black market has skyrocketed. This is not a trend that is likely to halt or reverse anytime soon. The best that owners can do for now is to take steps to safeguard their data. Hopefully, smartphone manufacturers will soon come to market with more bulletproof means of physical security, but that remains to be seen. Until then, the world is certain to remain awash in a flood of stolen smartphones.

Author's Bio: 

Author, Freelance writer