What To Do if Your Phone is Lost or Stolen

Category: Gadgets

A concerned reader asks: 'Yesterday I lost my smartphone in a taxi cab, and have not been able to recover it. Before I get a new one, are there any tricks I can try to locate a lost or stolen phone? And for the future, what options do I have BEFORE a phone is lost, that will help me get it back?' Read on for my tips...

Help, I Lost My Phone!

If you came looking for an article like this you probably want the answer right now. So I will save the why’s and wherefore’s until later; here is what to do when your phone is lost or stolen:

If it’s an Android phone, immediately try to locate the phone using the Find My Device service. You can use Find My Device via Google’s web interface and locate a phone you own via its GPS location data. If you don't have access to a desktop or laptop computer, you can ask a friend with an Android phone to open the Find Device app on their phone. You'll have to know your Google username and password to login to the service.

If your device is turned on and can be reached via cellular or wifi signal, its location will appear on a Google map. You can also make it ring, lock the device, or remotely wipe all data with a factory reset. Use the latter option as a last resort, because it can't be undone, and it will permanently erase all your apps, photos, music, settings, etc.

Find a Lost or Stolen Phone

If you have an Apple iPhone, you can use the Find My service via the Web or the Find My app on another Apple device. Find My will display the current location of your iPhone on a map, and also where it's been. You can optionally lock your phone make it play a sound, or display a contact number that can be called from the Lock Screen. The remote erase feature wipes everything, but you can restore from an iCloud backup.

If your iPhone is turned on but offline, Find My can help you locate it by sending out Bluetooth signals that can be detected by nearby Apple devices. If another device picks up the signal, it will relay the location of your device to iCloud so it can be located with the Find My app.

You should know up front that if your phone is turned off, if the battery has died, or if you lost your phone while hiking in a remote area, your chances of recovery are slim to none. Your phone must be able to receive some sort of signal (cellular, wifi, Bluetooth or GPS) in order for these phone locator services to work.

Hey, Are You the Guy That Stole My Phone?

Yes, it's low-tech, but you can try making a phone call. If you think you know the phone was lost in a restaurant or store, call and ask for the lost and found department. You can also try calling the phone itself. Texting a plea for the phone's return is another tactic you can try. This may attract a Good Samaritan who will return a lost phone, or it may get the thief on the line. The latter situation can be dangerous.

Never agree to meet a thief to exchange money for phone at your home or in an unsafe location. Perhaps you could persuade a police officer that's a friend to come along in plain clothes. At the very least, arrange such a meeting in a very public place where there are obvious security cameras. Do not let impatience lead you into a potentially dangerous situation. You might get hurt; you might even go to jail instead of the thief.

If you have insurance against theft, the better course would be to avoid a risky meetup, contact your mobile carrier or insurance agent, and get a new phone. See my related article: SCAM ALERT: Gadget Insurance and Extended Warranties.

If you're sure your phone is gone for good, contact your phone carrier and deactivate the phone’s access to the network, preventing texts or calls to Kazakhstan and other expensive use of your lost or stolen property. Ask your carrier if it can remotely deactivate or “brick” your phone so that a thief can’t just slap in a new SIM card and continue using it. Not all carriers will do this and a given phone model may not support it.

File a police report. Documenting the theft is important in case the phone turns up in someone else’s hand later. Make sure the report includes unique identifying information such as the phone’s serial number or its phone number.

An Ounce of Prevention

That’s the emergency advice. Before your phone is lost or stolen there are steps you can take to make recovering it or rendering it useless to a thief easier.

First, set a screen password, PIN, or fingerprint for unlocking. It’s a pain but so is pausing to lock and unlock the front door of your home. The Lock Screen is a friend for which you'll instantly be grateful, the moment you realize your phone is missing. On Android phones, you can set a message to be displayed on the Lock screen. I give my name there, and instructions to call my wife's phone number if the device is found by a stranger.

Next, make sure your phone is configured in advance to use the recovery options in Find My Device or Find My iPhone. This also works for iPad, Apple Watch and Macs.

Another free option for lost phones, laptops and tablets is Prey, a tiny software agent that silently waits for a remote signal via the Internet or text message. When Prey activates, it will gather info on the location and status of your device, and optionally trigger certain actions on it. You can remotely sound a loud alarm, snap a picture, lock down the device, or monitor what the stolen phone is doing online.

Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint all offer optional paid services to locate lost phones, but why bother paying an extra $5-$10 per month when you can get the same thing for free?

Your thoughts on dealing with lost or stolen mobile phones are welcome! Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "What To Do if Your Phone is Lost or Stolen"

Posted by:

31 Oct 2019

Cerberus works very good as well. I once lost a phone on a mountain hike. Once I got home, Using Cerberus, I was able to SMS commands to my phone to ensure GPS was enabled. I also retrieved a photo of the person who found it. Fortunately, a good person found the phone and returned it to me.

Posted by:

David P. Lagesse
31 Oct 2019

Before you do anything drastic, go to where you believe you lost your phone and call it from any other phone. This works wonders... even at home when the phone is under the pillows on your bed.

Posted by:

31 Oct 2019

About Android phones: A factory reset does not necessarily lose (permanently erase) everything on your phone. (It was stated above it cannot be undone. Perhaps it meant by someone else who had the phone.) I have factory reset a couple old phones, as well as an Android tablet, in order to clear major problems. This CAN be undone (and was, in each of my cases) by restarting the phone (assuming you've gotten it back) and signing in to your Google account. That will reinstall at least most of what was on the phone, although a few things may look a bit different. At least, this worked for me every time.

Posted by:

Ihor Prociuk
02 Nov 2019

Hi Bob:

You may want to follow up this article with one on backing up your phone. Is it possible to create something equivalent to an "image" of your phone --something like "imaging" your hard drive on a desktop? If a phone is truly lost, an "image" could get you up to speed pretty quickly on a new phone.

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