“My Smartphone’s Been Stolen!” What You Must Do Before and After Theft

What should you do if your smartphone is stolen?  First off, don’t fret.   You’ve got a number of protections that you didn’t have just two years ago. A number of states requires all smartphones sold in the state to have a “kill switch” function.   Many smartphone manufacturers introduced kill functions prior to the law coming into effect;  Apple adopted to an opt-out kill switch when it introduced its iPhone 6 in September 2014  (Activation Lock was introduced as opt-in in 2013 with iOS 7.).   And Android’s Lollipop operating system added a kill switch in October 2014 but left it as opt-in.  Then, in March 2015, its Lollipop 5.1 release included an Android Device Protection function, which requires signing into the last-used Google account after a phone is wiped.

Smartphone users have been able to remotely wipe and secure their devices for years, but few actually did, so thieves were willing to take their chances in pursuit of nabbing an unsecured phone. But the more phones that come out of the box with an opt-out kill switch, the lower a thief’s chances of using that phone — leading to, in theory, a decline in the number of thefts.  This may behind the reports that smartphone thefts dropped to 2.1 million in 2014 from 3.1 million in 2013, a 32% decline.

Still, millions of phones are being stolen annually in the US  (to a tune of over 5500 every day) and the ramifications can be quite serious given the amount of personal information stored on smartphones.    Think:  your contacts, your emails/texts, your financial transactions, your personal pictures, your home address and possibly some of your passwords  (or access to password-protected accounts that have been stored within).    In fact, your smartphone holds a wealth of information about you.  So the stakes are high each time you lose that phone.

The moment you buy your phone, there’s one invaluable step to take to protect yourself (and your phone).  Whether Android or iPhone, your phone will come with a built-in tool that lets you track it from the web or another device. On (stock) Android, it’s called Find My Device, and you can enable it under the Security & location menu in Settings. On iOS, it’s called Find My iPhone, and from Settings you need to tap your name, then your iPhone, to turn it on.    You also want to enable your phone screen lock.   You can find these options under Security & location in Android Settings, or Face ID & Passcode (or Touch ID & Passcode) in iOS Settings.  This helps prevent someone from accessing your phone or ripping any data off it.  These lock screen protections don’t prevent you from remotely erasing your handset from afar though, so you can still wipe your phone using Find My Device or Find My iPhone without actually having access to it.

Here are five crucial steps and you must do the moment you discover your smart phone is missing:

1. Wipe the Phone

If you have an Android phone, simply type “Find my phone” into the Google Search bar on your computer, laptop, or tablet, and as long as you’re signed into your Gmail account on that device it will find your phone. Just like that. You may be asked a second time to sign into your Google account for security reasons, but once done, you’re all set and Google finds your phone in seconds.  Because it’s a Google service, it links with your Google account and can locate any device associated with it.   Android Device Manager allows you to erase user data by wiping the phone, locking the screen with a password (so a thief can’t look through it or erase your device) or even let it ring on full volume to find it if it’s just lost in your home.  There’s also the option to reset the PIN remotely, or erase stored data.  You might also want to view your Google location history. This will help you identify where your phone was last seen, and if it still is signed into your Google account, it will be updating its location information to Google. This is a possible alternative in case device manager fails.

iPhone users can download the Find My iPhone application. If you’re rocking a phone with iOS 5 or later, then this app will come preinstalled. It works with iCloud — so it can be accessed 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 been too. You can remotely lock the phone, display an emergency message, or erase stored data if the phone has been lost forever.

2.  Call Your Provider

Then, notify your mobile provider of the situation.They will be able to help you deactivate your device and might even be able to help wipe it clean of your personal information, “rendering the phone useless to whoever has stolen it from you.”   Getting your stolen device on the national blacklist also renders it useless to thieves, as devices that are reported missing to a service provider are placed on a national blacklist, preventing it from working on any wireless networks.

3.  Change Your Passwords

If you had any passwords saved on your smartphone  (or even if you didn’t),  you may want to change all your online passwords for any accounts that were linked to your device.  Then alert your friends, family and co-workers via email or text that your device has been stolen. Use the ‘Logout of all devices’ feature on Facebook and any other social network whose app you had installed on your phone.

4.  Get a New Phone

If you bought insurance for your phone, find out what your plan covers. If not,check out the credit card that you used to buy your phone and/or pay for your monthly service bills.   A number of credit card companies will cover the costs of any lost phones.   You can also visit my PhoneMD or another phone reseller to get an inexpensive used replacement phone.

Things to Do In Advance

Before your phone even has a chance to go missing, you should find out your international mobile equipment identification number, or IMEI.To find your IMEI on most devices, dial *#0 6#, and the number should appear on your screen. Otherwise, the number should be printed on a white label underneath the battery.Your IMEI is what you will need to give to your service provider or local law enforcement agency to report it missing, so you should write it down and store it somewhere safe.   You should also avoid putting a PIN on your phone.   With that PIN, theives could wreak financial havoc; they could transfer money out of your bank accounts, lock you out of your account or cancel it, change the billing address on an account, buy merchandise and charge it to your accounts and sell your information to a third party, to name a few.

Better protection

Android Lost is an example of an all-in-one app for securing your phone against theft or loss. Feature-wise, it beats ADM hands down. Most features are fully free, but you will need to pay for using the remote shutdown/restart feature as well as to take remote screenshots. As of now, Android Lost lets you try the Premium features free for a week. You can fully control a lost phone by browser, or by SMS. Here is a (small) list of everything Android Lost,and similar apps, can do:

  • GPS tracking
  • Read/Delete SMS conversations, and send new SMS’s via browser
  • Take pictures with your phone camera, and record through your phone’s mic
  • Start/Stop phone services like Wi-Fi, Data Connections, GPS
  • Get notifications when your phone SIM has been changed
  • Play any audio message from your phone
  • Hide the app from the launcher

Needless to say, armed with remote apps like this,  locating a lost phone becomes easy. Finally,  if you’re thinking of using an app to try to retrieve a device that’s been stolen, police and tech experts have a simple piece of advice: Don’t do it.  Contact your local police department, but don’t try to confront the thieves.   People have died trying to recover their smartphones.  And while we all love our phones,  we don’t think they are worth dying over.

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