If you found a smartphone inadvertently left behind at a restaurant or a bus stop, would you scroll through the emails and text messages? Would you look at personal photos, or even try to log in to the stranger's bank account?

A "disappointing" number of us would do all of the above, according to an experiment conducted by security software-maker Symantec in an effort to encourage smartphone users to protect their private information.

Symantec installed tracking software on 50 smartphones and dropped them off in various locations in five cities: New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles and Ottawa.

The phones were loaded with fake passwords, banking information, emails and photos. Each also stored a real phone number so the finder could contact the owner and return the gadget.

Symantec wanted to see how many people would snoop through the phone and attempt to access corporate emails, bank accounts and other sensitive information.

The results were "disappointing," Kevin Haley, Symantec's director of security response, told CTV News.

In almost all cases – 96 per cent – those who came across a "lost" smartphone looked up personal information stored on it.

Tracking software showed that 72 per cent looked through photos, 57 per cent checked out saved passwords and 43 per cent accessed the phone's online banking app.

A phone dropped off at a busy transit station in Ottawa was grabbed less than 10 minutes later. Someone immediately started looking through the photos on it and then attempted to access passwords, bank accounts and social networking websites over the next couple of days.

Even if the snooping was done in an attempt to identify the owner and return the phone, the experiment underscores the need to password-protect smartphones and avoid storing sensitive information on them, Haley said.

The good news is, residents of Ottawa – the only Canadians included in the experiment – were more likely to give back a lost phone. Seven of the 10 smartphones dropped off in the city were returned. Overall, only half of the phones used in the experiment were handed in.

"Smart phones have access to your entire life," technology writer Bob Sullivan told CTV News. "In many cases, they can access either your home computer of your work computer … and it's important to keep in mind just how much people can see if they steal it."

With a report from CTV's Richard Madan