With the number of smartphone muggings high enough to earn the crime its own category in the police stats, holding a pricey little computer in your hands is like toting a big target.
However, you could also be holding a layer of security: Several apps have emerged that sound an alarm to family, friends and law enforcement in the event a smartphone owner feels threatened, faces an assault or suddenly gets nervous about their surroundings.
Some, like Circle of 6, were born out of a call to stem the tide of dating violence and sexual assault on college campuses (one in five female college students report being the target of assault, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
Imagine a college party with heavy drinking, where a woman gets cornered by an assailant’s drunken advances she finds difficult to escape. With her phone, she could quickly activate one of these apps and send an alert message to chosen contacts, who could then track her location, come to her rescue or, at the very least, interrupt the assault with a phone call.
One of the most intriguing of these apps is called STOP-ATTACK, currently available for free until Feb. 8 for both iPhone and Android users. It offers the same type of alerts but with the option of adding a call to 911. Once the app is activated, it also prompts your phone to begin recording audio and video that gets transmitted to a secure, cloud-based storage account that can later be accessed as evidence.
“If you feel uncomfortable, you can have the app on standby ready to go,” said STOP-ATTACK developer Tony Bright. “If you’re in a hostile situation you can discreetly record and if you get separated from your phone, you can access the information from the cloud.”
Bright also sees it as a tool to stop a bully, who can either be recorded on the sly or get interrupted by an alarm and light feature that could quickly deter a would-be attacker.
Bright’s company, Braxington Technologies, is just now starting to publicize the app. He will be a vendor in the gift lounges for both the Grammy and Oscar awards shows.
I downloaded the app and entered the names of my wife and brother as contacts to alert. I tapped the app and my screen was filled with the red STOP-ATTACK logo, the stand-by mode. I tapped it again and suddenly realized I was recording, and a call to 911 was underway. With the swipe of a finger across a button, I aborted to call off the cavalry.
A few minutes later, my brother emailed me to see what was up. My wife later said she got the same message and ignored it. But in her defense, she had no clue about the app.
I later got an email from STOP-ATTACK saying I could access my files. With the app downloaded, I can also hit my phone’s volume button to activate it without having to punch in my security code to get into my phone.
STOP-ATTACK costs $3.99 annually; almost all the so-called security apps have fees. The most expensive, MyForce, is $120 annually.
There are more than 1.1 million victims of assaults annually, according to the FBI National Incident-Based Reporting System. Cities from San Francisco to Chicago are combating cellphone muggings, especially where public transportation is involved, and police in major cities say they typically see a spike in these crimes when a hot new smartphone hits the market.
Consumer Reports said 3.1 million cellphones were reported stolen in 2013.
An app like STOP-ATTACK might not save you if you get blind-sided by an attack, however. And some situations may be so hostile, fiddling with a phone could add to the danger, said Robert Siciliano, an author and personal security consultant with bestHomeSecuritycompanys.com in Boston.
“Bringing attention to a situation or bringing assistance is a positive layer of protection,” Siciliano said. “Is it going to save your life? Possibly. Should you rely on it solely? Absolutely not. The time it takes to press a button on a phone could be time spent poking someone in the eyes or running away. If there is an opportunity where it makes sense, then yes, but your focus should always be on escaping.”
For that extra layer of protection — and Siciliano says you should always have several — here is a list of apps to check out: Circle of 6, Guardly, bSafe, Red Button Panic, StaySafe, React Mobile, MyForce and OnWatch.