Just the thought of losing your smartphone is enough to evoke panic, though there are plenty of ways to track and recover a lost phone. While it’s easier to track a smartphone, you can also locate older phones, so don’t give up hope if you’re rocking a first-gen Motorola Razr — we’ve still got your back.
If you’ve got a smartphone, remember to first set up and enable any included phone-locating software that’s native to your device, such as Apple’s Find My iPhone, Google’s Find My Device, and Samsung’s Find My Mobile. If you’re looking for more choices, try out the following apps.
Oh, and have you ever wondered what actually happens to a stolen phone? Check out this weird and voyeuristic film — if you dare.
Prey is free to use for up to three devices, there are paid plans for more, and the service can be used across platforms for both computers and phones. After signing up, simply sync your devices, sit back, and relax. If your phone ever goes missing, all you have to do is find a computer, log into your account, and start tracking. Prey runs discreetly in the background and won’t track your phone’s location until you tell it to, so there is no need to worry about your privacy while the phone is in your possession. Recent updates improved network configurations, enabled TouchID and Face ID on iOS, and extended functionality to Chromebooks. The Camouflage feature has been removed from Android.
Avast is a familiar name to anyone interested in computer security. The Avast Antivirus app is a complete package that offers virus scanning and protection, backup options, power-saving, and anti-theft options. You can remotely lock or wipe your smartphone, listen remotely, or take a “theftie” of the criminals who made off with your phone. You can also activate stealth mode on your device so the thief doesn’t know Avast is protecting your phone. Avast provides SIM card change notifications and locking, too, with similar services for Android, Mac, and PC. Avast is offering an all-in-one package for device protection from viruses and thieves as a paid premium service.
Lookout combines security, tracking, and antivirus or malware protection. Headline features include the ability to record a phone’s last location right before the battery dies, a chance to back up contact data before a remote erase, and an option to snap a photo of any would-be thief and email it to yourself along with location data. Lookout provides Safe Wi-Fi and System Advisor features to protect against Wi-Fi attacks and to check your device to make sure the operating system is working properly. It’s free, but you can upgrade to Premium for $30 per year for features like safe browsing and breach reports — which sends you alerts if a company, service, or app you use reports a data breach — or Premium Plus for $100 per year to get features like identity theft protection and lost wallet recovery.
Even if you don’t own a smartphone, you can still track your handset. In that case, we recommend using a GPS tracking service. There are a few options out there, but AccuTracking is a good choice that works well.
AccuTracking uses GPS to track the location of your phone — and it works with a wide variety of feature phones. As long as your phone is GPS-enabled — as most modern phones do — AccuTracking should help you locate it. When the day comes that you can’t locate your phone, just log in to AccuTracking’s web interface from any internet-connected computer and — so long as your phone isn’t dead — it will immediately show you its location. The service features four plans costing $13, $16, $21, and $26 per month which update every 120, 60, 30, and 15 seconds, respectively. It’s a pay-as-you-go deal with no contract and a free trial. And if you have smartphone, you can use the iOS or Android app.
Tracking your phone after you lose it
If you didn’t install a device recovery app on your phone before you lost it, don’t worry. There are still some easy ways to get it back, especially for smartphones.
On the other hand, if you lose a non-smartphone feature phone, you have minimal options. If you didn’t register your phone with AccuTracking or a similar service beforehand, you can try calling your service provider and hoping they can help. Most providers do offer GPS location services for a reasonable fee, so if your phone is GPS-enabled, finding it is sometimes just a matter of activating the GPS chip.
Find My Device
Android users can employ Find My Device. Because it’s a Google service, it links with your Google account and can locate any device associated with it. There are also options for locking your device, resetting your PIN remotely, and erasing stored data. You can even add a recovery message or phone number to the lock screen to boost your chances of getting it back, or prompt your device to play a sound in the event it may be nearby. Updated versions include support for indoor use to help you find your device in airports, malls, or other large buildings.
Find My iPhone
If you own an iPhone you can use the Find My iPhone app. This feature has been a part of iOS since version 5, so no download is necessary. It works with iCloud — so you can easily access it through a browser or another iOS device — and the location of your missing device will show on a map, along with the option to show where it has recently been. You can remotely lock the phone, display an emergency message, or erase stored data if the phone has been lost forever.
Tracking someone else’s phone with permission
While there’s always an option to simply call and ask where someone is, there’s an equal chance that the person in question doesn’t pick up or is terrible at giving directions. So, if you can’t always reach or trust the person you’re trying to locate, here are some options.
Those with smartphones can use a number of different location-sharing apps to let you know where they are. Facebook and Twitter both have location-aware check-in features, and Swarm has some pretty robust location-sharing features as well. However, we have a few more favorites for you to check out.
If you want to keep tabs on a friend or family member, there’s a good chance you already have the tools to do so, because Google Maps allows you to share your location in real time. Simply open Google Maps and tap your profile picture at the top right, choose Location sharing, and you can choose to share your location with the people you select. You can choose to share your location for a limited period of time or until you turn the function off. Anyone you share your location with will see your icon on the map when they open Google Maps. Google is constantly tweaking and improving this service, and it has become a great resource over time.
Find My Friends
One of our favorite apps for keeping track of people’s whereabouts is Find My Friends. It’s available for iOS and Android. Although the two apps aren’t from the same developer (Apple makes the iOS version, which is also supported on the Apple Watch), they offer roughly the same service. The apps allow you to track multiple people at the same time, which is useful when you’re trying to meet up with a big group. Find My Friends for Android also works on iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, and feature phones. The app uses cell phone signal triangulation to find people and makes location sharing easy. Send a non-smartphone user a text invite, and when they reply “yes,” their icon appears on the app’s map.
iMessage and Google Hangouts
If you and your companions use iPhones, you can use iMessage to share your location. The Google Hangouts app has a similar feature and is available on both Android and iOS. The app even watches for phrases like “Where are you?” and will then automatically suggest sharing your location. It’s also a great app for chatting and video calling.
Several major networks offer phone tracking services and apps, paired with a multitude of family safety and location services and features. AT&T offers its Secure Family, Sprint has Safe&Found, Verizon provides Smart Family, and T-Mobile has the FamilyWhere app. All come with a free trial, but you will have to pay a subscription fee to continue using them.
Tracking someone else’s phone without their permission
You should always be upfront about tracking somebody and respect their right to privacy, and you should never modify someone else’s phone. However, if you’re the owner of the phone and absolutely must track it without its current user’s full cooperation — perhaps an always-in-trouble teen — here are a few tips on how to do it.
Tracking a smartphone user
You can always use whatever account your child or another minor has that’s connected to your own. You just need to log into the Find My Device or Find My iPhone services to find their location on a map. There are also tracking apps you can use, like Find My Friends, available on Apple. These can connect your entire family and friend circle together. Simply install the app before you give the phone to your preteen or perhaps elderly family member, for example, and you’re ready to go.
You can use these features without your kids knowing by hiding the app in an undetectable folder. Of course, you’ll have to do this before handing them the phone. Most apps require permission to do this, but those rules usually operate a little differently when it’s your family or relative. If you’d rather be open about it instead of hiding the app, talk to your teen or child about why you’ve installed it and how it benefits them.
Tracking a non-smartphone user
Like we mentioned above, tracking is much more difficult on a non-smartphone device. Fortunately, you do have a few options. You can use your phone essentially as a GPS device, so it will show you its exact location if you lose it. Many feature phones have GPS capabilities, giving you the chance to track your phone should the need arise. To enable it, simply login to the Accutracking site and follow the simple steps to set up your account.
Tracking features like those we’ve explored here are just the beginning of all the privacy and protection features available for smartphones. Check out our roundups of the best Android security apps and the best iPhone security apps for other tips and suggestions for ways that you can protect your valuable handset.
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