6 Anti-Theft Apps for the iPad and iPhone

by Reads (32,357)

Even more than a notebook PC, your iOS device is an appealing target for thieves. Common sense is your best tool to prevent your device from getting lifted, but there are some apps that can help.

Although just about all of the anti-theft apps leave something to be desired, there are free (or almost free) ones out there that can make it easier for you to locate an iPad or iPhone if it is either stolen or misplaced. In this article, we’ll take a largely hands-on look at six of these and let you know how well they worked for us.

Why is an iPad particularly enticing to a crook? For one thing, a laptop’s greater bulk makes walking away with it more noticeable. Beyond that, notebook PCs have security slots for locking cables (which, admittedly, not many people use). In contrast, a tablet is rarely tethered with power or security cables, and it can be slickly slipped under a shirt or inside a paper-type notebook.

Also, it’s all too easy to misplace your iPad — to forget to take it with you from your plane seat or your hotel or your meeting room — or to have your device slide into hiding under a jacket, a stack of newspapers, or the groceries.

An iPhone, of course, is even smaller and lighter than an iPad, so it could be even more likely to stray.

Stolen iPadWhat Are Anti-Theft Apps Designed To Do?

How can an anti-theft app like Apple’s Find My Phone, Prey Anti-Theft or SecureIT Anti-Theft help you to find a missing tablet or phone? Essentially, these apps use GPS or WiFi data and/or IP address to track the location of the device. Some popular additional features including displaying the location on a map, sounding an alarm on the device, taking photos from the device, and remotely locking the system or wiping the data. Other capabilities  can include a secure browser, motion sensors, parental controls, and more. Several of these kinds of apps are free, or close to it.

In case it isn’t obvious, most anti-theft tasks require the strayed iOS device to be (a) On and (b) able to access the Internet through Wi-FI or a cellular network. Doing more precise map-locating assumes GPS service as well, although locating based on network addresses for Wi-Fi hotspots can be surprisingly adequate in some cases too.

Among the leading security software vendors, Kaspersky as well as McAfee and Symantec provide anti-theft features for Android phones and tablets. McAfee and Symantec supply anti-theft capabilities for iOS devices, too, but only with the purchase of more comprehensive security products or services.

McAfee’s crossplatform LiveSafe service includes built-in anti-theft protection for iOS and other devices. Symantec offers an app called Norton Mobile Security – Lost Phone Finder — operable on both the iPad and iPhone — in Apple’s App Store. For the Norton app to work, though, you must be a paid subscriber to either Norton Mobile Security, Norton 360 Multi-Device, or Norton One.

Meanwhile, Apple and a bunch of third-party vendors have posted free or low-cost standalone apps in the App Store and/or on other web sites which work on a standalone basis. Here are six of them. Wherever possible, I tested these apps using my WiFi-only iPad 2 and my iPhone 4.  (iLost Finder, though, only works on a jailbroken device, so I wasn’t able to test that one.) As we’ll see, I wasn’t exactly overwhelmingly impressed with any of them. If you lose your iPad or your iPhone, however, you need as much assistance as you can get.

Find My iPhoneFind My iPhone
Free

Supporting the iPad, iPhone, iPod plus,and Mac, this free app from Apple is designed to help you locate — and if need be, remotely lock or wipe — your iOS device.

You can from reach a missing iPad via either Find My iPad on another Apple device (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch), or through your iCloud account, which you can access either via a web browser or the iCloud Control Panel for Windows 7 or 8.

Find My iPhone’s Play Sound lets you make your device play a sound for two minutes at full volume (even if your device is set to silent), and send you an email message confirming this was done. Lock & Track allows you to see the locations of your devices on a map.

If you use Lost Mode on an iOS 6 or higher device, you can lock it with a passcode (existing or new) and track its location.

If you lock an ioS 5 device or higher device or a Mac, an Erase feature lets you erase data on the remote device. (If you’ve set the device to auto-save to iCloud, you won’t lose your data.)  Some devices let you remotely enter a text message, such as how to contact you.

Meanwhile, iOS 7 includes Activation Lock, a new feature that will let you make it harder for anybody else to use your device, in any case.

While the price is right, however, Find My iPhone didn’t turn out to be as accurate as it should be in pinpointing locations on the map. For example, while it correctly showed the location of my iPad — which doesn’t have mobile broadband or GPS enabled — it persisted in showing my iPhone as being about half a mile away… even when my iPhone was in my shirt pocket, a mere foot from my iPad. Tsk.

Toggling SEettings > iCloud > Find My iPhone on the mis-located device (here, my iPhone) fixed this at least temporarily sometimes — but not reliably. (On my most recent reset, it halved the error.) Being off by several blocks is unacceptable for a device that has GPS in it… and if the i-device isn’t with you, you can’t toggle that setting, anyway.

Also, it would also be nice if the map showed device-specific icons (e.g., iPad, iPhone) rather than generic green locator pins —  and if clicking on a device icon on the map brought up the action choices, rather than forcing you to click several times to get there.

Even with these glitches, though, installing and configuring the free Find My IPhone app should be one of the first things you do when you get a new i-device.

Prey Anti-Theft
Free (paid upgrades available)

Prey is an open source anti-theft app for locating and recovering an iPad or iPhone. (Other versions are available for Android, Windows, and MacOS.) You can register up to three devices on an account.

Unlike Apple’s Find My iPhone, which only shows the current location, Prey saves reports of locations as your iPad moves. (Note: This also means that when you tell Prey a device has gone missing, it won’t collect report information until the device moves far enough.)

Once you’ve installed the Prey app on a device, you can monitor and control it through the Prey’s web-based Control Panel.

Prey lets you remotely find and track your iPad/iPhone on a map, using geolocation based on GPS and/or WiFi data. Prey also lets you take pictures using both of your iPad’s cameras (with luck, getting a picture of the thief and/or useful location information), push an alert message to the display, and trigger a loud alarm. Prey can report on network information, too, which might also help to narrow down the device’s location.

If you do install Prey, make sure all the related iOS features are enabled (e.g., Settings > Privacy > Location Services).

The free version of Prey can monitor up to three devices. Pro non-free versions can monitor more devices and include a few more features.

After several tries and browsing the Help knowledge base, I got Prey to work, but I’m not impressed. Telling the Prey control panel to “do a report” sent a brief, misleading “notification” at the top of the iPad screen. If the person now using your iPad doesn’t tap on it, nothing else happens. Since the Alert message is identified as from Prey, a security-savvy crook will notice this and decline to tap on the message.

If a user does tap on the Alert message, Prey causes the device to sound an alarm and capture a picture from each camera. However, unlike several other anti-theft apps, Prey uses the current volume setting — on my iPad, near-mute — rather than overriding to maximum volume.

Also, overall, the user interface is cumbersome, slow, and non-intuitive.

On the good side, Prey’s map-location of my “missing” device, and the map view itself, is much more accurate and detailed than what Apple’s own Find My iPhone provides.

Prey can be a good complement to Find My iPhone. The price is right here. too, but the developers need to improve the app.

SecureIT Anti-Theft
Free

The free version of this app provides anti-theft features consisting of Remote Geolocation and Remote Message/Alerting. The $19.99 upgrade to Premium adds web security, parental controls, and activity monitoring.

However, getting started is remarkably multi-step and badly documented. The registration screen’s implication is it that it wants your Gmail ID, although it took an AOL address from me instead. From there, it sent me to the Quick Start Guide web page… which didn’t mention iOS at all, only Android.

The “Help” portion of the free app is similarly unhelpful. There’s no actual Help info relating to iOS, and not much overall. You use SecureIT through its web portal.

I must say that the map location is surprisingly accurate, given that my iPad is WiFi-only, without cellular service or GPS. The map displayed by iPad as being within half a block of its actual location.

On the other hand, the “Actions” — sending an alert message to the iPad, and/or telling it to make a noise — didn’t work at all. Tsk.

Similarly, the Tunes page for the app claims the free version includes Remote Lock and Wipe Your Device features. I didn’t see them there. Fortunately, Apple’s free Find My iPhone app offers these, anyway.

You might want to try the free version of SecureIT Anti-Theft, to see if its map location is better than that any other of the anti-theft apps you’re considering.

Whether it’s worth twenty bucks for web filtering, parental control and other features, I can’t tell you. But the bad job on the free features doesn’t make a good case for spending any money with these guys, versus going elsewhere.

Hidden
$15 and up per year, depending on number of devices

Hidden is another app that can track the location of your iPad, iPhone, or Mac. It uses a mix of GPS and network-based geo-location, and it will not work on WiFi-only iPads. The app can take pictures using the front-facing camera, hopefully including ones of the thief or where the device is.

Once you have created an account on the HiddenApp.com web site, you can download Hidden for iOS from the app store. (To find it, search the App Store for “hidden flipcode.” Otherwise, you’ll find too many hits just for “hidden.”)

If your Apple computer, iPhone or iPad later gets lost or stolen, you should login to your Hiddenapp.com online Tracking Control Panel and mark the device as “stolen.”

Hidden says that it will then “immediately report the location of the device.” Hidden will also “trigger a local notification imitating an alarm clock; when the thief attempts to view or dismiss the fake alarm notification, the app will open and take a photo of the thief.”

In one nice feature, the control panel offers a “Test Mode” button which will collect data and then reset device status back to “Not Stolen.”

Yet my effort to use Hidden was singularly abysmal. I purchased one account. Since my iPad doesn’t have the cellular service turned on, I tried to use it for my iPhone… only to be told that my one-device license was already in use. To add insult to injury, incomprehensibly, the App Store on my iPad couldn’t find the Hidden app using the App Store on my iPad, although it could find it through both the App Store on my iPhone and iTunes on my Windows desktop. Go figure.

If you are able to install Hidden, it may do the job. On the other hand, you can get Alarm and Take Photo features for free from other apps.

Color me unimpressed, uninspired — and unlikely to recommend Hidden.

Motion Alarm HD
$2.99

Motion Alarm HD is more proactive than the above-mentioned apps, using motion sensing to help protect your iPad — not just from a would-be thief, but even from people who simply want to use it without your permission.

When the app is running and showing on the display, any motion above the set threshhold triggers actions, which can include the alarm sound, screen blackening, and emailing your location. Touching the app Alarm Status back to Off kills the alarm. (While Motion Alarm HD needs to be the foreground app to be active, the settings include darkening, so that the device looks off or asleep.)

Alarm sounds include a default siren, along with sundry optional sound effects like barking dogs. The alarm sounds at the current volume setting for the device, rather than at maximum.

The tracking message includes latitude/longitude to three decimal places, plus a link to Google Maps, which showed my iPad to be only a few houses off from my actual location.

Given that this app seems only to be active when it’s in foreground, I’m not sure how useful it can be, unless you’re ready to remember to set it each time you step away from your iPad.

I tested the HD edition, which only runs on the iPad. However, a non-HD version is also available for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.

iLost Finder
Free

iLost Finder works only on a “jailbroken” iPad, iPhone, iPod running iOS 4.3.0 or later. It is a free, Cydia-based app that will take a front-side photo if anybody (including you) who types in the wrong unlocking passcode. It will then email the picture to you. Given how often I mis-type my own code, I’d be the main character in my rogue’s gallery.

However, to the extent that iLost Finder actually performs these actions automatically whenever the wrong passcode is entered, the app could turn out to be helpful.

In another distinctive feature, iLost Finder prevents your device from powering off.

Unavailable in Apple’s App Store, this app is downloadable from the iLostFinder.com web site.

If you haven’t jailbroken your iPad or iPhone for other reasons, do you want to jailbreak it just in order to run iLost Finder? Only you can decide. (I haven’t jailbroken my iPad or iPhone, and I still don’t plan to do so.)

Since I don’t have a jailbroken iOS device to test iLost Finder on, I can’t give you a hands-on opinion for this app. There are other “take and email picture” apps available, but this is the first I’ve seen that prevents a power-down.

Other Tips for Safeguarding Your iDevice

Given the importance of locating a lost or stolen mobile device like an iPad or iPhone, it’s disconcerting that so many of the offerings are hard to use or don’t deliver fully on their claims. That said, you can do a fair amount for free (or practically for free). Start with Apple’s Find my iPhone and then consider adding one or two more apps to fill in the gaps.

Beyond installing any apps, also take other reasonable precautions. Keep an eye on your device when you’re out and about. Set a login password. Also, make a note of the serial number on the purchase receipt and ile a copy of the receipt. You might want to file a copy with your insurance company,too.

Put your name on the device (if you didn’t order it with your name etched in by Apple). Consider including your email address, phone number, perhaps even a mailing address, or an ID label from a loss protection/recovery service like StuffBak.com.

Additionally, you might want to take a picture of your business card or address label and use it as the first picture on the Camera Roll (and leave that image there).

Be sure to do regular backups, either to your desktop computer or to Apple iCloud or another cloud service, That way, even if you do lose — and never recover — your iPad or iPhone, you’ll only be out a few files or pictures at most.

Want to find out more about how cloud computing can help to ease your work life? Check out the “Working in the Cloud” series to learn more.

Jacqueline Emigh, software editor for TechTarget’s TechnologyGuide Media Group, contributed additional reporting to this article.

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