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Caught on Camera: Lookout Photographs Smartphone Thieves

Lookout introduces new tools to help deter smartphone theft.

Smartphone thefts are on the rise. And while legislators and the telecommunications industry continue to look at a smartphone “kill switch” as a possible solution, mobile security software maker Lookout is providing other ways to tackle the problem.

Today, the company is rolling out a new feature to its premium Lookout Mobile Security app called Theft Alerts. Whenever Lookout detects suspicious activity on your phone, the app will take a picture with its front-facing camera (presumably of the thief), record the time and phone’s location, and email that information to you so you can take further action — like remote-wiping your device and contacting the police.

What counts as suspicious activity? According to Lookout, there are five common actions that thieves take after stealing a phone: Entering an incorrect password, removing the SIM card, enabling Airplane mode, turning the device off or removing security apps like Lookout.

Any one of these will trigger an alert from the Android version of Lookout, although the password must be entered incorrectly at least three times before Lookout does anything.

Meanwhile, the iOS app only sends an email when the SIM card has been removed or when Airplane has been turned on. The iOS version also doesn’t take a photo of the thief. This is due to the more closed nature of the OS. But Lookout is hoping that the upcoming iOS 8 will open up the platform a bit more, so it can add support for those other triggers and photos.

Theft Alerts is customizable in that you can choose to turn certain triggers on or off. For example, perhaps you use Airplane Mode a lot and don’t want to be sent false alerts every time you use it, or maybe you have trouble entering the right password after a few drinks.

According to Consumer Reports, about 3.1 million Americans were victims of smartphone theft in 2013. In its own research, Lookout said one in 10 smartphone owners had their devices stolen, and of those, 68 percent weren’t able to recover their phone.

The company is looking into adding more features to Theft Alerts, such as the ability to reach you via a backup number. But Lookout’s first priority in launching the feature was getting the triggers right.

All current Lookout Mobile Security Premium users will get Theft Alerts through an update. The company is also offering the feature to users of its free app for three months at no additional cost. But if they want to continue using it after that, they will need to upgrade to the premium app, which costs $2.99 a month or $29.99 annually.

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