As the carrier of contacts, text chains, account information, and gigabytes of precious photos, a modern cell phone is a deeply personal item. Losing it immediately leads to panic, and those feelings quickly intensify if it actually ends up in the hands of a thief who wants to steal personal information for nefarious purposes.
If your phone is lost or stolen, don't waste time feeling helpless. The leading operators offer utilities to help users find and recover their phones, protect their data, and prevent thieves from accessing important accounts.
The exact steps for finding or wiping a lost or stolen phone vary, depending on the phone, but the first step is important and always the same; report the loss to the police immediately.
Even if the chance of recovery is slim, filing a police report increases that chance. Some of the details uncovered through the phone's utilities could also help the police with their investigation.
If the lost phone is an Android device that is turned on, connected to the internet, signed in to Google Play, and has location services turned on, you can probably find it using Android's device manager service. The Android.com website offers a few helpful functions, even if it's the first time you sign in. A map shows the phone's location and its location history. You can make the phone ring remotely — even if it's on vibrate — lock the device with a new PIN or password, and erase data from the device entirely.
Note that erasing the device's data is the last step, as it also disconnects the phone from your Google account. Although extreme, this step protects your Google account from unauthorized access.
Apple's Find My iPhone utility is probably the most famous location app. It's accessible on iCloud or through the Find My iPhone app on any other Apple device — as long as Find My iPhone is enabled on the lost phone. The app provides a map with the device's location and lets you turn on location services remotely. You can also lock the device remotely, display a message on the screen asking for the phone to be returned, and disable Apple Pay.
As with the Android utility, you can wipe your lost device remotely, and it also removes the phone from your iCloud account. If the device is off or disconnected from the internet at the time the changes are made, the changes take place the next time the phone powers on and connects to the internet.
The operating system for Windows phones includes a similar utility to help you find and remotely erase your phone. The first step is to go to the Windows device manager and click "Find My Phone." The utility includes a map with the phone's location.
The map may also show the device's location history and its last known location before the battery died, if that setting is enabled. From this page, you can ring the phone remotely, lock it, display a message on the screen, and erase the data.
Even if a phone is wiped and all hope of recovery is lost, it's important to follow up with a few more recommended steps. Call your wireless provider to report the loss of the phone. Your provider can disable the phone's data services and disconnect it from the network, preventing the thief from using the phone to rack up charges or impersonate you in texts or calls.
Additionally, passwords for any accounts saved on the phone should be changed right away. If a thief makes it past the lock screen, he or she could access banking apps, emails, social media accounts, and payment information that are stored on the phone.
Finally, notify family, friends, and other contacts that your phone is missing. It allows you to retrieve contact information and gives them a heads-up that anyone texting or calling before you replace your phone is not you.
When your new phone arrives, take the necessary steps to ensure you can find it if it's lost. Check the options for the "Find My Phone" or "Find My iPhone" utility, and consider enabling location services to make your phone visible on the map. Additionally, set up automatic backups to guarantee important photos, documents, and data are preserved if your phone is lost or stolen.
Many phones come with a setting that will protect your SIM card from unauthorized use, preventing phone thieves from running up the data bill if they do manage to get past the phone's other defenses. Whenever the phone restarts, it will require the user to input a PIN to unlock the SIM card for the phone to use.
On iPhones, the feature is in the Settings app, under the Phone category. Select SIM PIN and follow the instructions to activate it. Choose a PIN you won't forget, because incorrect guesses can permanently lock the SIM card. The process is different for different versions of Android and different carriers, but it might be worthwhile to research the steps to protect your data plan.