Losing your smartphone can evoke existential panic — way beyond losing your wallet or house keys. That’s because, in addition to its monetary value, your phone packs so much critical and private information about you and your family in one handy place. The idea of a stranger accessing this personal information is chilling.
And yet, people lose their smartphones every day. You’re checking out couches at Ikea and it falls out of your pocket, you lose track of your phone in a crowded exhibition hall, you leave it in your pants pocket when throwing your clothing into the hamper, or some creep manages to get hold of it from your pocket or backpack. It doesn’t matter how it happened — you want your phone back, and you want it back now.
There are plenty of ways to retrieve your missing phone. If it’s a smartphone or tablet running iOS or Android, you already have the software needed to hunt it down — or there are a variety third-party apps you can install to track your phone.
Oh, and by the way, have you ever wondered what happens to a smartphone after it’s stolen? Read how this filmmaker spied on a thief to find out.
Finding lost smartphones
If you happen to lose track of your iOS or Android smartphone, both Apple and Google feature built-in phone retrieval technology as part of the native software package that works via your device account. For Android devices, this is your Google account, and for iPhones, this is your iCloud account. Both allow you to remotely lock and wipe your phone, make it ring, and set up special messages to alert whoever finds it. These features work great as long your phone’s battery holds up.
Exercise caution when communicating with anyone who has found your smartphone. Avoid revealing personal information, such as your home address, until you know you’re dealing with someone you can trust. Stick with sending phone numbers or email addresses to communicate how a finder can return your phone. Here’s our guide on how to find a lost phone or a similar device for each operating system.
How to find a lost Android phone
The easiest way to locate a lost Android handset is to use the Find My Device feature, which is built into your Android smartphone through Google Play Services — it also can be used in a browser or downloaded from the Google Play Store. Most devices running Android 2.3 or later should be able to use this feature.
Using the feature is as easy as searching “Where is my phone?” in Google, which will prompt the service to search for your phone. We’ve previously written about Find My Device and its ability to call you, set up a new password, and make your phone ring from afar, along with the variety of other notification functions. While you can configure Find My Device ahead of time, the service should be available if you lose or misplace your phone by using Wi-Fi or GPS to help you hunt down your device. It’s a very good idea to enable Find My Device on your Android smartphone.
- Go to Settings > Google (or Google services) > Security and make sure Remotely locate this device is turned on in the Find My Device section.
- You may be asked to sign in.
- When you open the app or search in your desktop browser you’ll see all of your devices listed at the top, so just select the relevant tab to find the specific device you seek.
If you can’t recover your smartphone, you can always wipe it to prevent sensitive information from getting into the wrong hands. Your device will need an internet connection and enough juice to communicate with you. In Android 5.0 Lollipop, Google introduced Factory Reset Protection (FRP). It’s designed to prevent thieves from being able to steal your phone, wipe it, and then use it or sell it. If you factory reset a phone with FRP enabled and try to set it up as a new device, you’ll be prompted to enter the username and password for the last Google account that was registered on the device. If you can’t, the phone will remain locked.
Android also works with several third-party apps designed to find your smartphone. One such app, Prey Anti Theft, features remote access and control, allowing you to gather more information regarding the whereabouts of your phone. It provides more granular control over how you or the cops can track your device — GPS coordinates, MAC address, photos from the camera to help catch the thief, and other, more detailed notifications that Find My Device doesn’t offer.
Another option for some Samsung smartphones is the Find My Mobile service. You can use it to locate, lock down, or wipe a missing phone. You need a Samsung account, and the Remote Controls options enabled on your phone. To check and see if Find My Mobile is available for your smartphone, do the following.
- Go to Settings > Biometrics & Security.
- If you see Find My Mobile in the menu, you can use the service.
- Enable the Remote Controls options via Settings > Biometrics & Security > Find My Mobile > Remote controls.
How to find a lost iPhone
Apple gives you a roadmap for locating a missing iPhone: Apple’s native Find My iPhone. The app comes pre-installed on every iOS device and can display your missing device on a map to help you easily locate and manage it. You will need a computer or another iOS device with the Find My iPhone feature to deploy this solution. We used a lost iPad running iOS 13 as an example.
- Tap Settings > Your Apple ID (name) > Find My.
- This brings you to the Find My sheet where you then tap Find My iPhone to switch it on if it’s off. (Note: It should never be off).
- With Find My iPhone switched on, also tap on the switches Enable Offline Finding and Send Last Location. Those help you pinpoint where you last left your phone in case internet services are currently off.
- With all those controls set to go, return to Settings > Apple ID and scroll down to see all your devices in a list.
- Tap the device you’re missing and it takes you to a Device Info sheet that lets you directly search for it.
- Tap Find My (iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch) and then tap Show in Find My iPhone and it brings up a map that shows you its exact location and directions on how to get there.
- The service also gives you the option to play a sound on your device, mark the device as Lost, and send a message to your phone in lost mode.
- You also have the option to erase the device, in case it fell into the wrong hands.
- Find my iPhone can also locate your Mac, iPod, and iPad. It’s an incredibly effective tool for tracking down just about any iOS device. Don’t believe us? Check out this story about cops apprehending a criminal by using the app. This is just one of many similar stories where phone-tracking software helped locate a stolen device.
Apple also employs an Activation Lock to keep your iPhone safe from theft. Enabled by default, the Activation Lock requires that you tap in your Apple ID and password before you can disable Find My iPhone, wipe your device, or reactivate it.
How to find your not-so-smart cell phone
With simple cell phones, there aren’t as many programmatic or app-based options available to assist you in finding a lost handset. But there are still some standard procedures to follow, in case your cell phone goes missing. Try doing the following.
- Call your cell phone. Listen for the ring or vibration and try to locate your phone through tried-and-true human detection. If your phone is truly lost and in someone else’s hands, then they’re likely to answer if they intend to return the phone.
- Retrace your steps. Do a full-fledged visual search. If you couldn’t hear a ring or vibration when you called it, don’t immediately assume that your phone is located far away — the battery could simply be dead.
- Text your phone. If you believe someone has stolen or possibly found your phone, then send a text message to your phone with your contact info and a reward offer if you choose to do so. There are many online services that allow you to send free text messages, such as txtDrop.com.
- Alert your service provider. If you’ve lost hope of finding it, then call your wireless carrier and let them know your phone is lost. Ask if they offer a GPS locating service. If not, ask them to suspend service to your phone to avoid any fraudulent charges. Carriers have differing policies about this, but it’s always worth a try, even for a smartphone. This FCC page has a handy list of numbers.
- Register your lost phone. If you know your phone’s IMEI number or have it written down somewhere, register it with Immobilize.
- Prepare for the next time you lose your phone. Maybe you’re one of those people who’s always losing their phone. You may want to consider registering for a tracking service such as AccuTracking.
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