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Do You Really Need a Third-Party Android Security App?

Android security apps

If you want to keep your Android smartphone safe, you'll have to take charge of its security. This means that you'll either have to tinker with the phone's security settings — or let a third-party app handle it for you.

Third-party Android security apps are powerful, easy to use and often free. Yet, according to a just-released report by Moscow's Kaspersky Lab, only about 40 percent of Android device owners use these apps.

Leaving your phone's well-being to a specialized app has its advantages, but you can do more than you'd think to protect your device on your own, with just a little know-how.

Managing mobile security

Last month, Google pushed out a service called "Android Device Manager" to all devices running Android 2.2 and up. If you have an Android phone or tablet, this service is easy to set up.

Click on "Settings," "Security," then "Device Administrators" to access the option, and check the box next to "Android Device Manager" to enable it.

Android Device Manager replicates many of the functions of Apple's "Find My Phone" app. That is, it lets you remotely erase all data, change the password, or lock the screen on your device; this can all be done from the Web page at — provided that you've already linked your device to your Google account. (You have if you've received Gmail or installed apps from the Play Store.)

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In addition to tracking a device's location, Android Device Manager gives you three more options: Ring, Lock and Erase.

Each is exactly what it sounds like: Ring makes your phone ring at top volume (useful for finding it in a messy room); Lock lets you change the phone's lock-screen password (or add one if you don't have one), and Erase will restore the device to factory settings, wiping all your personal data.

Each feature gives you a line of defense against gadget thieves, although each feature is also of limited utility.

Location tracking will only pin the phone to a general area, not to a specific address, even with GPS enabled. Ring won't do much good if your phone's stolen, unless you think the thief is within earshot.

As for the lock screen, a savvy hacker can bypass that defense without too much trouble. And factory-resetting the device — the nuclear option — will delete any identifying information you could use to find your device, including what Android Device Manager needs to operate.

If you're looking for additional ways to secure your phone, you may have to use a third-party app, maybe even dishing out a little money.

Alicia diVittorio is a consumer safety advocate for Lookout Mobile Security, a San Francisco-based company that provides comprehensive security software, both free and paid, for Android, iOS and Amazon Kindle.

"I definitely think it's advantageous to use third-party apps," diVittorio told Tom's Guide. "I think you'll find that third-party apps are so focused on their specialty, they can provide a richer experience than when you go with a more generic product offered by the platform provider."

The Lookout app, along with most third-party Android security apps, offers the same features as Android Device Manager, but also much more. Lookout for Android, like its competitors, offers a malware scanner, as well as the ability to scan websites as you browse — blocking malicious ones. In Lookout, this is a paid feature. (Malware scanning of non-Google Play apps is built into Android 4.2 and up.)

Lookout and similar products from Bitdefender and Sophos display which permissions you share with each app, and Lookout allows you to easily wipe your browsing history and cookies. To be fair, you can also do this from the standard Android settings menu, but that process can be cumbersome.

Robert David Graham, founder and chief executive officer of Errata Security in Atlanta, also advocates using third-party Android security software, although he points out that many people don't realize they need the protection until it's too late.

"Security is only useful when things have gone south," he told Tom's Guide. "The reality is that people don't prepare for the extraordinary. People don't anticipate what will happen if they've lost their phone."

Since installing an app is easier than setting up a manual tracking system,  many consumers might find a third-party app more useful than setting up Android Device Manager.

"No one will ever care about Android Device Manager until the phone's gone," Graham said.