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How to Find A Lost or Stolen Smartphone

8:49 AM, Nov 12, 2012   |    comments
A Samsung smartphone running Windows Mobile (image credit Sean Gallup/Getty)
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Rob Pegoraro, Special for USA TODAY

Question: I lost my phone. What are my options to get it back, or at least stop somebody else from using it?

Answer: One solution comes from software, another from a recent industry effort.

Most smartphones either have built-in find-my-phone features or let you add them through third-party apps. The best-known among them would have to be Apple's Find My iPhone, which will let you locate a missing phone (or iPad, iPod touch or Mac) using GPS or through nearby Wi-Fi signals as long as the gadget in question is powered on and connected to the Internet.

You can also use this feature of Apple's iCloud service to send a message to the device's screen and lock access to the rest of its software, then wipe its storage remotely if necessary.

It's free and it works. But Apple had to make overdue upgrades to iCloud's password-reset routines after hackers exploited them to remotely wipe tech writer Mat Honan's laptop this summer in a particularly cruel attack; that's why I no longer have this option enabled on my own Mac.

Microsoft's Windows Phone software includes a similar find-my-device feature.

Google's Android operating system, however, lacks this kind of built-in protection, so you have to add it through other apps. The Lookout Mobile Security app often gets a nod for this use; it's easy to set up, and many users already run it for protection from Android malware.

At a minimum, Lookout's free version should do well at locating a lost phone, Its newest release adds a useful Signal Flare feature that automatically sends out the phone's location as it's about to run out of battery. In a test, it operated as promised, e-mailing a map showing a test phone's whereabouts within a block.

But to lock or wipe a phone remotely, you need to opt for Lookout's $29.99/year Premium option. And to do more than remove your Google Account and associated data from the device, you also need to opt into an "Enable Better Protection" setting that authorizes Lookout to perform a complete reset.

Neither the free or paid versions of Lookout let you send a message to the phone's screen. Although the company says it's working to add that, for now you can only alert whoever finds your phone by having it sound an alarm. The free Android Lost (thanks to PCMag.com's Jamie Lendino for recommending it) includes that option, although it doesn't offer Lookout's malware protection.

Android Lost is a little wonkier to set up, but it also offers a broader set of remote controls: You can have the phone sound a siren, send a pop-up message to its home or lock screens and even see what text messages have been sent or received. And yes, you can then nuke a phone remotely.

You don't need to own a smartphone or run a special app to benefit from a new theft-deterrence initiative among wireless carriers: the stolen-phone database launched last week by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless. The idea behind that project, begun with the Federal Communications Commission and law-enforcement agencies in April, is to squelch the market for stolen phones by ensuring they can't be used again.

You should be able to report a phone as lost or stolen at your carrier's site, by calling or in one of its stores. It will then add that phone to this blacklist, locking it out from further voice or data use--on its network or anybody else's--besides calls to 911.

If you've just upgraded to a new smartphone, you can try selling the old one to another user or to a recycling operation like Gazelle or YouRenew. Your wireless carrier may also have its own buyback program. But if it's still in decent working order, you could instead move it on to a second life as a cheapskate's iPod touch.

Like Apple's media player, a deactivated iPhone or Android device can play music, display pictures and show movies. (You'll need third-party software to sync an Android phone with a Mac or PC as easily as an iPhone can.) It will also provide Web, e-mail and app use over Wi-Fi, even if it won't be nearly as fast or as long-lived on a charge as an iPod touch.

But a retired smartphone, like any other phone without an active account, can also still dial 911 in an emergency.


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