What To Do if Your Phone is Stolen

Category: Gadgets

A 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 stolen phone? And for the future, what options do I have BEFORE a phone is lost, that will help me get it back?'

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 built-in Android Device Manager. Is some cases this will work even if you have not previously set up your phone to use Device Manager. You can access Device Manager via Google’s web interface and locate a phone you own via its GPS location data.

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 iPhone service via a Web browser, if you have configured the Find My iPhone app on your device. Find My iPhone will display the current location of your iPhone on a map, and also where it's been. You can optionally lock your phone and make it 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.

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 both cellular and GPS signals, 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 calling the phone. Texting a plea for the phone's return, along with a financial incentive, 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: Mobile Device 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 calls to Ukraine 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 or short PIN. It’s a pain but so is pausing to 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.

Next, make sure your phone is configured in advance to use the recovery options in Android Device Manager or Find My iPhone.

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 Stolen"

Posted by:

Ken Mitchell
04 Dec 2013

There's another program that you can use to find a lost/stolen Android phone even if you have not already installed tracking software like Prey.

Go to the Google Play store (the old name of "Android Marketplace" was a better name!) and download the app "Plan B" from Lookout Software. The Plan B software can self-install and self-activate, and start giving you tracking reports - assuming that the phone is still turned on.

Posted by:

04 Dec 2013

I have read that a typical phone thief will switch a stolen phone immediately to "airplane mode," which will defeat measures to find or disable the phone.

Posted by:

04 Dec 2013

Any tips for Windows phone users? I have a Nokia Lumia.

Posted by:

John Lowie
04 Dec 2013

Thanks Bob for the info

But been there done that

Posted by:

04 Dec 2013

When a credit card is stolen, the company's system detects unusual activity, if the thief so much as makes a purchase above your usual dollar level or even goes to a gas station outside of the area where you usually drive. They freeze the card and notify you.

Cell phone companies operate on the motto "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company." (Thanks to Lily Tomlin.) When you wade through the fine print in the contract (IAAL), you'll find that YOU are responsible for all charges until you notify the company of the theft. If you "misplace" your phone and the f*cker who took it is on the line 24 hours a day to Uzbekistan running up a $5000 bill, the carrier blandly informs you that you must pay for the illegal usage.

I learned to keep a prepaid dumb phone and call my cell whenever I can't find it.

Posted by:

Daniel Wiener
04 Dec 2013

I loaded both Lookout and Where's My Droid onto my Samsung S4. I was particularly interested in the "Signal Flare" feature of Lookout, which will automatically save your cell phone's location (and email it to you) shortly before the battery runs out. So if your phone has fallen onto the ground some place, and you don't realize it immediately, you aren't in a race against time to recover it before the battery goes dead and it becomes invisible forever.

Posted by:

Mac and Cheese
04 Dec 2013

I like "Where's My Droid?" ("WMD") for Android phones, available free from the Google Play store, with enhanced features available for a one-time payment of a couple of bucks.

With WMD you can make your phone ring (even if the ringer is off--works great if the phone is buried in your Barcalounger). Take a picture with either or both your front-facing and rear-facing cameras. With a little luck, you might get a picture of the schmuck who stole your phone--suitable for framing--or for a "Wanted" poster.

You can track your lost phone on a map as the schmuck drives to Mexico, lock your phone remotely, even if you haven't set up a pin or other security feature, and, of course, if you're desperate, wipe your phone--all, of course, assuming it's on.

You do all this either from the company's web site OR--even niftier--from a friend's phone, via text messages to your lost phone, such as "WMD Ring" to make it ring. If you know how to send text messages to your phone via e-mail, you can do the same thing. This works great if you don't actually have any friends. Or if they won't let you use their phone.

I've had this little gem of a program for a year or so, and I love it. When I lost my phone between the seats of my car, however, I didn't remember that I had WMD for a couple of days (duh!) and by then the battery on the phone had run down, and I only just happened to find it when I was rummaging between the seats for a nickel I dropped.

But in all my tests, "Where's My Droid?" works great. ... Boy, I can hardly wait to lose my phone again, so I can try it for real!

Posted by:

05 Dec 2013

Lookout Lookout.com Nothing not to like about it that I know of.

Posted by:

10 Feb 2014

I misplaced my iPhone 4S in my house last week. Wheni ran previously installed "Find my iPhone" all it said was "no connection could be found". I found my phone this morning in a spare bedroom still with battery power. Why didn't it work?

After reading this I downloaded PREY. On my ipad 3 it says my phone is "un reachable" though they're sitting right next to each other and my phone was recharged and turned on.

I'd welcome advice.

Posted by:

30 Dec 2014

$12 stupid-phone from AT&T. My address book was copied onto a piece of paper. If phone gets lost, I just buy another.

Posted by:

Jason Kaven
18 Mar 2015

My son lost his iPhone 5S last month, but I found it back with the help of iKeyMonitor - www.ikeymonitor.com. At first, I installed it on his iPhone just for parental control, and I don't know its GPS tracking feature helps me find it so easily!

Posted by:

19 Jun 2016

While in Mexico my son had his smartphone stolen, actually he's not entirely sure what happened. I'm worried what thieves can retreive from the phone; passwords, sensitive information, security he had in place.

I tried to call his phone and it goes straight to voicemail is there any assistance you can offer or anything I can do from Canada? Any Intel would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

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