Web Culture

The Art of Stopping Phone Thieves With Uglification

Kannon Yamada 23-07-2013

Smartphone theft worldwide reached epidemic proportions in 2013, prompting manufacturers, like Samsung, to announce plans to create a device kill-switch. The kill-switch design will turn stolen phones into lifeless hunks of glass and plastic. But, let’s face it: Theft is pure profit for both carriers and manufacturers, since it translates into a greater volume of phone sales. Can we really trust a kill-switch or can other methods reduce theft Don’t Be A Victim: Practical Tips To Protect Your Smartphone From Theft Considering the cost of a new smartphone, most of us are extremely casual about how we treat them. But keeping tabs on your smartphone isn’t difficult. Keeping it safe from the possibility of theft is... Read More ?


A way of reducing the chances that your phone might get stolen is through uglification, or the art of making beautiful things ugly. Bloggers have been uglying up their cameras, bicycles and more for some time now – but a device where there’s been a strange lack of ugly is the smartphone. Perhaps because they’re seen as status symbols? Personally, I would prefer keeping my Nexus 4 from getting stolen and just dealing with the public scorn.

Three kinds of “uglification” exist: First, there’s turning your phone into something that no hardened thief would get caught dead stealing. Second, you can use a variety of techniques to make your phone appear ragged and impoverished. Third, you can disguise your phone’s appearance – such as placing it within a book, after all, what kind of criminal would steal a book?

Uglifying Your Phone Through Magical Unicorns

While I do love unicorns, the average hardened phone snatcher might not – although certainly some within their community might find snow-white ponies appealing, they are likely a minority. For this particular method, I purchased glitter-covered unicorn stickers on Amazon and applied them to the back of my Nexus 4, making sure to cover all marks indicating its brand. And it looks fabulous.


All I did was shove on the ugliest case I could possibly find and add a booklet of glitter-covered unicorn stickers. As you can see, the effect is quite magical. Some of the unicorn glitter even rubbed off onto my phone, making it sparkle. It has the added advantage of covering up any identifying markers.


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This is the look I actually kept on my primary phone after several of my friends questioned my judgement. That means it’s working.

Uglifying Your Phone With Masking Tape

I first heard about the masking tape method on Lifehacker. A photographer in Brazil wrapped masking tape around his camera and then dirtied it with an unknown substance, presumably paint. Unfortunately, he did not detail the method used. In my best attempt to recreate the look and feel I took an old smartphone and got down to work.

I started off by wrapping masking tape around the phone.



Next, I used a paint brush to dab brown and yellow watercolor paint onto its surface. This didn’t have quite the effect I’d hoped for: The paint beaded up on the masking tape and clearly appeared artificial. No thief would have fallen for it.

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I then used my finger to grind the watercolor into the masking tape. This had a much better effect, causing the sort of filthiness that you could only find in the worst gas station’s bathroom. I then went for the Triple Crown and used a sharpie to give it a more urban vibe.


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Overall, this is the most effective method. Not only did it look like someone smeared it with feces, the phone wasn’t even recognizable as a phone. Of course, you will need to deal with becoming a social pariah, but I already had one foot in that door. No big whoop to put the other foot over.

Hiding Your Phone in a Hollowed Book

I didn’t actually try this method, but it works quite well when you’re away from the house. Simply take a book and hollow it out. Several methods exist, but my favorite seals the pages of the book together with glue and adds a felt interior lining to cushion your phone.

Here’s a manifest of the items you’ll need:

  1. Glue;
  2. Box cutter;
  3. Brush for applying glue;
  4. Straight edge;
  5. Optionally velvet.

A variation on this method turns a book into a hidden wireless charger. Reddit user jdblaneg embedded a Qi charger (wireless charger) into a book, creating a secret charger.


Out of the three methods for disguising your phone, the tape method makes the phone appear the least attractive to thieves. On the other hand, you may not prefer making the phone look that ratty. If so, try using stickers to cover identifying markers on your phone. And for those of you who prefer hiding your phone in plain sight, try cracking open a book.

However, for those of you serious about protecting your phone and would like some tips, check out my review of the best cases The Quest For The Best Nexus 4 Case: 6 Cases Tested And Compared Looking for the best Nexus 4 case and protective gear? Look no further; this article covers a variety of gear designed to protect your precious N4 from catastrophic harm. And trust me; you will need... Read More for the Nexus 4. For discussion on the subject, check out our Answers section.

Anyone use similar methods to disguise their phone? Or would anyone like to heap recrimination upon me for daring to disfigure my phone? Feel free to let us know in the comments.

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  1. Honestly
    July 25, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    I don't understand why you couldn't just be more aware of your personal belongings instead of having to do all that. Plus even if it did get stolen you could just have something like Prey that allows you to remotely shut down your phone via text.

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 25, 2013 at 9:14 pm

      That's a good idea - I should have mentioned Prey or Cerebus. Actually our own James Bruce did a review of the various methods available for tracking thieves:


      Even so, I would maintain that a strong defense is better than a strong offense (going after thieves). Seriously, Apple Picking has become so common nowadays, we have given it its own word - but if you can disguise your phone, it cuts down on the chances that someone might rob you. Oftentimes thieves might throw a punch first, to stun their victims. Or brandish a weapon. It's really scary.

      Also, this post is largely tongue in cheek. :-)

      The best way to avoid getting robbed for your phone is to not bandy it about in public.

  2. Alan
    July 23, 2013 at 10:11 pm

    Really, I mean REALLY? try moving somewhere with a lower crime rate....i have a work phone, it is insured, so if someone wants it that bad (it not even a iphone or samsung so i doubt someone would steal it anyway) it wouldn't really bother me that bad. its just a phone. nothing sentimental about it.

    • Kannon Yamada
      July 25, 2013 at 9:18 pm

      I wish my phone was covered by some kind of insurance!

      Anyway, you're right - a phone is basically just a hunk of glass and plastic. Even so, I'd prefer to minimize the chances that someone might rob me for mine.

      Of course, I do that by not pulling my phone out in a bad neighborhood, unless necessary. On the other hand, I sorta like the aesthetic appeal of an urbanized phone. It's sorta like torn jeans. :-D

  3. Lisa Santika O
    July 23, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    I like the second and third method, although heaven forbids me from treating book that way. Call me weird, but that 'urbanized' case looks cool.

    • Jeremy G
      July 24, 2013 at 12:12 am

      I, too, like the urbanised case. Previously, I've taken a knife to the back of my HTC, and to the shiny plastic along the edge of the screen, giving the phone a battered look, and adding grip.

      • Kannon Yamada
        July 25, 2013 at 9:22 pm

        Thanks for the comment Jeremy! It's actually considered in vogue in some areas to have a damaged phone, particularly with the glass backed iPhone 4s. Some kids actually stained the cracks in their glass to give it a rainbow-like effect.

        Other kids were intentionally smashing their glass backs!

        You're the first person, though, that I heard of putting battle scars on their HTC. Sounds pretty cool!

  4. Karen A
    July 23, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    ROFL this is a great tip!

  5. Ryashini K
    July 23, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    I actually have done the hollowed book trick before. However, it was not to stop thieves but to smuggle the phone to school where they are banned ;)

  6. Phoghat
    July 23, 2013 at 7:48 am

    used to work well in NY City on an expensive bike