Lost Smartphone Alert: Find It Now

Thursday Mar 19th 2015 by Joseph Moran
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Imagine losing your smartphone—and the data stored on it. Don’t panic. Instead, take these steps to increase the odds of recovering a misplaced iOs, Android, or Windows Phone.

Do you know where your smartphone is right now? If you didn't, would you know how to find it, other than ransacking your home or office and trying to backtrack everywhere you'd been recently?

The consequences of a lost smartphone aren't just the high cost of replacing a piece of hardware (particularly when you're still under carrier contract). It can mean the loss of both business and personal data; data that could potentially fall into the hands of…well, just about anyone.

You Lost Your Smartphone. Now What?

First, the vendor-provided location features we describe in this article are obviously intended for individuals who own and manage their own devices. If you're outfitting a small business with smartphones and want an administrator to be able to track the location of all company phones, mobile device management (MDM) products can provide this capability. Read more about MDM here.

A little advance preparation can greatly increase the odds of finding and recovering your smartphone should you lose it; we'll show you what you need to do on an iPhone, Android phone, or Windows Phone. But before we delve into how to set up and use the location feature on these platforms, let's review some basic information and disclaimers that apply to all of them.

Apple iCloud settings: Find My Phone

Figure1: Turn on Apple's Find My Phone feature from within iCloud settings.

Location Services

Right off the bat, we need to point out the obvious; location services are an indispensable feature when it comes to finding a lost phone. Thus, if you disable your smartphone's location services owing to privacy concerns, you've also disabled your ability to find your phone. (Just one example of the double-edged sword this technology represents).

Connection Types

Tracking a smartphone's location works best when it has an automatic and persistent connection (e.g. a cellular network link) to the Internet. If your phone goes AWOL in an area with no cellular signal (or only marginal coverage) you may not be able to pinpoint its whereabouts (or you may have difficulty doing so).

This can also have ramifications when you're trying to track down a tablet rather than a phone. Since a tablet typically relies on a Wi-Fi connection for Internet access, finding your missing tablet assumes that 1) it's in the presence of a Wi-Fi network, and 2) it's been previously configured to connect to that network. Remember, most tablets won't automatically join unknown networks—and can't when the networks are password-protected. (Note that if your tablet happens to have 3/4G cellular capability this caveat obviously doesn't apply.)  

Ring, Lock, and Wipe

Aside from simply showing your phone's location on a map, each of the smartphone platforms offer a number of proactive steps to take before you head out the door after it:

  • Ring: Makes your phone play an audible tone at max volume, and do so regardless of what the phone's volume is set to (or even if it's on mute/vibrate). It can be useful when you've simply misplaced the phone in your home or office, but also in other situations because although location info gives you a street address, it can't tell you whether you left the phone in the second-floor conference room or in the pasta aisle at the supermarket.
  • Lock: Secures access to your phone with a password or PIN—even if you haven't previously set up such a code (although these days you should really put a PIN code on your phone the moment you take it out of the box). In addition to locking the phone, you can also display an alternate phone number and/or email address so whoever finds the phone has a way to reach you.
  • Wipe (Erase): Performs a remote factory reset on the phone, thus eliminating all of your personal information. This can be a drastic step, but it's a prudent one if you don't think you'll be able to retrieve the phone (if it appears to have been stolen, for example). Besides, if you're regularly backing up your phone to a cloud service or computer, you should lose little if any data by nuking it this way.

NOTE: If you have a Microsoft Exchange-based corporate email account configured on your phone, you have another option. Contact your company's IT administrator because he or she will most likely be able to remotely wipe the phone as well. 

In Case of Theft

Speaking of stolen smartphones, it's important to stipulate that these phone location features are intended to help find phones that have been lost by their owners. If you know or suspect your phone's been swiped, don't risk your safety by using phone location information to track down and confront a possibly violent thief. Instead, contact your carrier to report your phone stolen and get in touch with law enforcement. 

How to Find a Lost Smartphone

With the preamble out of the way, here's what you need to do to track your iPhone, Android phone, or Windows Phone when it goes missing. 

Find Lost iOS Devices

Tap Settings, then iCloud, then scroll down to the bottom and turn on Find My Phone. Also turn on Send Last Location to minimize the chances that your efforts to find a missing phone will be thwarted by a dead battery.

To see where your phone is at any time, log in at www.icloud.com/#find, and within a few seconds you should see your phone's location shown on the map. To interact with your absent phone, click All Devices at the top-center of the page, and then select the name of the phone you're looking for (e.g. Joseph's iPhone). This will summon a window at top-right, which will display your phone's approximate battery life and let you play a sound (i.e. ring), enable Lost Mode, or erase the phone.

When you select Lost Mode, a wizard will prompt you to enter a message and contact number to display on your phone's screen. When you complete the wizard, the phone locks and displays your message. While the phone is in Lost Mode, the map will automatically update if the phone's location changes (but still show you where it's been).

iOS Find My Phone app

Figure 2: On iOS devices you will find (or download) a Find My Phone app. It lets you use a borrowed phone to find your missing one.

If you decide to pull the trigger on Erase iPhone, you'll need to enter your iCloud password to confirm. Also be advised that you'll most likely receive a confirmation email from Apple when you first log in to iCloud and each time you perform any of the steps described above. 

By the way, if you don't have a computer handy but do have an iPhone-owning colleague, friend, or family member nearby, you can use the Find My Phone app from their phone to hunt yours down. The app is built into recent versions of iOS, and you can also download it from the app store.

Find Lost Android Devices

To turn on phone tracking for an Android phone, open the Google Settings app (please note this is different from the standard Settings app), then tap Location. Put a check next to Access location, and then turn on both Location Reporting and Location History. Next tap the back arrow, then Security, and finally, put checks next to Remotely locate this device and Allow remote lock and erase.

To find a missing phone, log into Android Device Manager; once the phone's location is displayed on screen, the Ring, Lock, and Erase buttons will appear along with it.

There are a number of third-party phone tracking apps available in the Google Play store that you can use in lieu of Android Device Manager, including Lookout and Where's My Droid. Both are available in a free version, but both also charge extra for the ability to remotely lock and/or wipe your phone.

Android Device Manager via Google Settings

Figure 3: To turn on location tracking via Android Device Manager, use the Google Settings app (not the standard Settings app).

Lookout charges $3 per month (though it's a full- featured security app, so you get a lot more than just phone lock/wipe for fee), and Where's My Droid charges a flat $3.99 and includes some extra features you don't get with either Android Device Manager or Lookout, including the ability to take and view remote pictures from the phone. 

Find Lost Windows Phones

On a Windows Phone, tap Settings, and then scroll (way) down to find my phone. Here you'll find two options to check, and you should check both of them. The second option—Save my phone's location periodically and before the battery runs out to make it easier to find is pretty much self-explanatory, but the first option, Send apps to my phone using push notifications (not SMS), is also important.

If you don't select it, Microsoft's Find My Phone service will use SMS (i.e. texts) messages to communicate with your phone, and it can only send 15 such messages over a 72-hour period. While that's likely to be enough for most situations, it's not hard to envision one where you might find yourself re-checking your phone's location repeatedly within in a short period of time. If you left it on a bus or in a cab, for example.

WindowsPhone website

Figure 4: Log into the WindowsPhone website to see your smartphone's location on a map, or to ring, lock, or wipe its contents.

Once you've enabled Find My Phone on your device, head over to WindowsPhone.com and choose Find My Phone from the "Explore" pull-down menu at the upper-right. Sign in with your Microsoft account, click on the Find My Phone button, and before long you should be looking at your phone's location on the map. You can also avail yourself of the adjacent Ring, Lock, and Erase buttons if necessary.

There you have it. A lost phone need not be a catastrophe, as long as you know what to do before the phone goes missing and what to do once it does.

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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