Security 101

Mobile Theft and Loss Report – 2020/2021 Edition

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When we presented our last report in 2020, we didn’t expect that in only two years the world would be in a completely different state. Social behavior, the way we work, and the way we express ourselves, have definitely changed (for better or worse).

Now, deeply settled into what is no longer the “new” normal, we can take a sobering look at how this has affected our most important object of study: the theft and loss of mobile devices.

Devices left the streets and offices to stay at home for a long time, and now they are back in public (and potentially dangerous) areas. Human nature is looking for spaces to manifest itself again: the more we want to go out and enjoy ourselves in the outside world, the more likely we are to lose devices or have them stolen by malicious actors.

And it’s not just our personal devices. Office equipment, often very secure in work environments, is now a powerful loot full of private and important information, which sometimes goes unnoticed even by the most opportunistic thieves.

This study aims to identify new patterns in theft & loss, between sheltering from a global pandemic and recovering from it. There is still some time until full recovery, but what we have learned gives us valuable information to predict what is to come.

We hope you find this report useful to make informed decisions regarding theft and loss in your organization.

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The previous MTLR study

At the beginning of 2020, we released the previous (and second) version of the report, which used metadata of 2019 for a total of 697 different cases. For the present study, we grabbed all of 2020 and 2021 to check and compare with the last edition.

Interested in the last report? You can read it here.

Methodology

To learn about the current scenario of loss and theft, we cleared the metadata of 802 users of the free version of Prey. We theorize that the sample was proportionally less for the last two years than for 2019 due to the significant rise of remote work and stay-at-home policies, triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The sample cases were obtained from recovery stories entered by the same users on their Prey accounts, through a prompt that appears after a device is set to Missing and then Recovered. From these users, the ones that marked the option “Just Testing” were removed to keep only the stories that were actual losses and recoveries.

Each story considers a physical location (country and type of place), the device type and OS that was missing, and type of event. 

As per demographics, the obtained information considers users from all around the world, and there was no control as to their area, gender, or age.

Loss Versus Theft

Just like in both previous reports, most of the devices were lost due to being Misplaced, by a vast majority. The premise stays; our carelessness makes us our own worst enemies. It also rose in comparison to last year, same as Business and Car Break-Ins, while Home Invasions, Pickpockets, and Robberies went down. Our hypothesis is that these options have gone lower following the decline of street life we saw for several months within the last couple of years.

The percentages keep the same tendencies as before, and if we organize them from higher to lower the order stays the same. 

Where is it more likely to lose devices?

Close to half of the events occurred at a private, personal location, such as Homes, the own user’s Car, or a Private Event. This confirms one of the most common findings in our reports: as misplaced items are the main reason for device loss, private areas will always have first place in terms of probability. 
The following more frequent locations were Streets or Public Places, Office or Work, and Public Transport.

More frequent locations by loss or theft type

Misplaced

For Misplacings, the main location by far is Home. Following is Office / Work, which is good news as they tend to be secured, known places. Along with Street, they both presented a raise compared to 2019’s totals. The fourth most frequent location is Public Transport, which decreased in the latest data, and as Street is a really bad place to misplace your stuff.

Pickpockets

In the case of Pickpockets, Street continues to be the highest. Then comes Workplaces, with a raise in comparison to 2019… oops! Not cool. Public Transport decreased considerably, while Home came to replace School, which had a total of 17,58% during 2019. That’s an unforeseen consequence of studying from home, and a drastic change as the last report had 0 Home events and the present had 6 cases.

Robbery

Robbery showed an odd change, with Home becoming the most frequent option after Street showed a huge decrease. Public Transport and School / University switched places but stayed within the top 4. Workplaces didn’t make it to these years’ top. 

The data suggests that the opportunity for theft was obviously affected by our pandemic habits and government measures. Without kids at the school, people in offices, and pedestrians walking around freely, what’s there to steal anyway?

What devices are more frequently stolen?

Mobiles continue to be the highest, with 68,1% of their cases being Misplaced. Laptops increased in events, with Misplacings and Home Invasions being the highest scenarios at 37,7% and 28,1% respectively. Home robberies seem to have a pattern of commonality: we believe the remote life may be tempting for thieves, just by having more potential loot available (such as work laptops).

Desktops also presented an increase in events, albeit rather insignificant in terms of the raw number of devices. Here, the pattern of Home Invasion has been confirmed: 17,4% of all incidents with desktops are Home Robberies.

Conclusions

The human factor will always be relevant

So far in our reports, misplaces have always been the main factor of device loss. These past two years, the rule has been confirmed: no matter what happens in the world, misplaced devices would still be the majority. In fact, theft tackling has become a secondary factor when referring to tracking systems.

When considering a device tracking tool, always consider your employees being careless as a possibility.

The public space is no longer the main threat regarding theft

Remote activities and home life have curiously moved robberies and pickpockets locations to our privacy instead of happening on the outside. Remote work could be a giveaway sign of valuable items inside homes and thieves can take advantage of that.

Pickpocketing in public spaces is (and always will be) concerning, but it’s not the same for robberies. Owners should have special care when leaving work devices home, and maybe remote work policies should consider insurance for stolen devices from our stay-at-home workplaces.

Mobile devices are still the most coveted prize

Small and powerful, mobile devices are still the most frequently stolen devices, according to our data. Even if the motives are purely economic, such as stealing, erasing, and reselling a device, it’s always a profitable business, and a quick and easy felony (we’re not encouraging you to do it, we’re just saying it’s easy to do!).

The potential gains when stealing mobile phones are amplified when you consider how much we depend on them. Phones have our personal information, our bank accounts, our delivery apps, and the pictures of our loved ones. An expert can do so much more than just erase and sell your device.

Staying at home significantly reduced incidents

There has been a consistent drop in incidents in the last two years, compared to the two ones before (2018-19). We have a theory: the pandemic effectively reduced our contact with the outside world and the liberty of movement of malicious agents such as thieves and pickpockets. Even misplacing incidents were reduced.

It’s a sweet and sour trade-off, after all: the more the outside world we miss, the more we get to enjoy our mobile devices.

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About the author

Beatriz Henríquez