Apple Responds to Report About Thieves Permanently Locking Out iPhone Users

The Wall Street Journal's Nicole Nguyen and Joanna Stern today published a report highlighting how thieves can use Apple's optional recovery key security option to permanently lock out iPhone users from their Apple ID account.

iphone passcode green
As the journalists first revealed in February, there have been increasing instances of thieves spying on an iPhone user's passcode in public and then stealing the device in order to gain widespread access to the device and its contents, including financial apps. All of the victims interviewed in the initial report said their iPhones were stolen while they were out socializing at bars and other public places at night.

With knowledge of the iPhone's passcode, a thief can easily reset the victim's Apple ID password in the Settings app, even if Face ID or Touch ID is enabled. Subsequently, the thief can turn off Find My iPhone on the device, preventing the owner of the device from tracking its location or remotely erasing the device via iCloud.

Today's report places more focus on an additional step that thieves can take: using the stolen device to set or reset a recovery key, a randomly generated 28-character code that is required to regain access to an Apple ID once enabled.

"Apple's policy gives users virtually no way back into their accounts without that recovery key," the report states. With unmitigated access to a stolen iPhone, the device's passcode, and the Apple ID password, thieves can steal money via Apple Pay and potentially other banking apps, view sensitive information like photos and emails, and more.

Apple's website does warn that losing access to both your trusted devices and recovery key means that "you could be locked out of your account permanently." In this scenario, however, thieves spying on iPhone passcodes before stealing the devices means that victims only need to lose their device in order to potentially be permanently locked out. The report serves as a valuable reminder to protect your iPhone's passcode in public.

For more details, read our previous coverage.

Apple Responds

In a statement shared in response to the report, Apple said it is "always investigating additional protections against emerging threats like this one."

"We sympathize with people who have had this experience and we take all attacks on our users very seriously, no matter how rare," an Apple spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal. "We work tirelessly every day to protect our users' accounts and data, and are always investigating additional protections against emerging threats like this one."

How to Stay Protected

iPhone users should use Face ID or Touch ID as much as possible when in public to prevent thieves from spying on their passcode. In situations where entering the passcode is necessary, users can hold their hands over their screen to hide passcode entry.

The report also recommends that users switch from a four-digit passcode to an alphanumeric passcode, which would be more difficult for thieves to spy on. This can be done in the Settings app under Face ID & Passcode → Change Passcode.

To protect a bank account, consider storing the password in a password manager that does not involve the device's passcode, such as 1Password.

Users can enable Screen Time parental controls to further lock down their device, the report adds.

Top Rated Comments

cgs1xx Avatar
9 months ago
So, Apple’s response was “aahh… sympathies” ?
Score: 28 Votes (Like | Disagree)
bunty Avatar
9 months ago
So we're gonna have our 989 post conversation all over again?

The point is the passcode to unlock an iPhone can also be used to access or recover anything that asks for your Apple ID password...if you forget or pretend to forget your Apple ID password. Try it. It's all covered in the other conversation thread.

The screentime passcode can be circumvented easily.
Score: 27 Votes (Like | Disagree)
brandoman Avatar
9 months ago
All one has to do is turn on Screen Time > Content & Privacy Restrictions > Passcode Changes > Don't Allow. Be sure to use a different passcode for Screen Time.

Oh, and Account Changes (Don't Allow). Thanks for that tip @ypl.

Score: 23 Votes (Like | Disagree)
RamGuy Avatar
9 months ago
Is this even the case anymore? When I try to disable Find My, I'm prompted for my Apple ID password, not my passcode. Same if I try to log out of iCloud, this requires me to disable Find My as a part of the process prompting me t verify with my password, not my passcode.

All of this is common sense. You can't expect a 4-digit passcode to be all that secure. If you feel paranoid, use an alphanumeric passcode, aka password, instead.
Score: 21 Votes (Like | Disagree)
ELman Avatar
9 months ago
Essentially, be responsible for the device you own. It's not our issue.
Score: 20 Votes (Like | Disagree)
zorinlynx Avatar
9 months ago
This would be less of an issue if iOS didn't randomly fail to FaceID and ask for a passcode, often at the least convenient time.

I wish Apple would get this resolved.
Score: 19 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Popular Stories

iOS 16 4 Web Push

Apple Confirms Governments Using Push Notifications to Surveil Users

Wednesday December 6, 2023 5:06 am PST by
Unidentified governments are surveilling smartphone users by tracking push notifications that move through Google's and Apple's servers, a US senator warned on Wednesday (via Reuters). In a letter to the Department of Justice, Senator Ron Wyden said foreign officials were demanding the data from the tech giants to track smartphones. The traffic flowing from apps that send push notifications...
best buy snowflakes

Best Buy's New Weekend Sale Has Record Low Prices on MacBook Pro and MacBook Air

Friday December 8, 2023 7:37 am PST by
Best Buy's month-long holiday sale continues this weekend with multiple all-time low prices on Apple's line of MacBook Pro and MacBook Air computers. In addition to Apple notebooks, Best Buy's event has discounts sitewide on home appliances, TVs, video games, and more. Note: MacRumors is an affiliate partner with some of these vendors. When you click a link and make a purchase, we may receive...
iOS 17

iOS 17.2 Will Add These 12 New Features to Your iPhone

Friday December 1, 2023 12:19 pm PST by
iOS 17.2 has been in beta testing for over a month, and it should be released to all users in a few more weeks. The software update includes many new features and changes for iPhones, including the dozen that we have highlighted below. iOS 17.2 is expected to be released to the public in mid-December. To learn about even more features coming in the update, check out our full list. Journal ...
beeper mini

Apple Puts a Stop to Beeper Mini's iMessage for Android Feature

Friday December 8, 2023 2:24 pm PST by
Apple appears to have closed the loophole that Beeper Mini used to bring iMessage to Android, putting a stop to blue bubbles from Android devices. Beeper Mini quit working earlier today, with users receiving "failed to lookup on server: lookup request timed out" error messages. Beeper said on Twitter that it is investigating the issue, but Beeper CEO Eric Migicovsky told TechCrunch that "all ...
iphone se 4 modified flag edges

iPhone SE 4 May Reuse Existing iPhone 14 Battery

Wednesday December 6, 2023 1:17 pm PST by
Recently, MacRumors has received details on the battery currently being tested on the upcoming fourth-generation iPhone SE, and the information corroborates previous findings in relation to the device. The iPhone SE 4, known by its device identifier D59, is expected to use the exact same battery found in the base model iPhone 14. Partially assembled prototypes of the next iPhone SE have been ...

Review: Two Months With the iPhone 15 Pro Max

Thursday December 7, 2023 12:04 pm PST by
Apple's iPhone 15 lineup came out in September, and while most reviews are done shortly after a new device launches, we like to follow up with a longer term review that gives us an opportunity to provide a deeper dive into what it's like using these phones on a day to day basis for months. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. MacRumors videographer Dan Barbera has been...
apple watch black friday

Apple Watch Ultra 2 Hits New Record Low Price of $699, Alongside Series 9 and SE Sales

Friday December 8, 2023 8:55 am PST by
Amazon has a few big discounts on Apple Watch today, headlined by a new all-time low price on the Apple Watch Ultra 2. Many of these watches can be delivered by Christmas, with delivery dates around the middle of next week for most models. Note: MacRumors is an affiliate partner with Amazon. When you click a link and make a purchase, we may receive a small payment, which helps us keep the site ...
iOS 17

35 Things Your iPhone Can Do in iOS 17.2 Coming Next Week

Wednesday December 6, 2023 5:57 am PST by
Apple made the first beta of iOS 17.2 available to developers in October. Since then we've seen three more betas, and with each iteration Apple continues to add more new features and changes, many of which users have been anticipating for quite a while. Below, we've listed 35 new things that are coming to your iPhone when the finalized version is publicly released in mid-December. 1....