In a perfect world we'd never be late, forget important things or lose any valuables. Since this isn't a perfect world, it's important to prepare for the unexpected and make sure to have a plan ready if disaster arrives.
Nowadays people rely on their smartphones more than ever; for phone calls, email, texts, web browsing, research, social media, entertainment, and storing important files. Smartphones can alleviate many burdens for us thanks to the conveniences they provide - which means if they are lost or damaged that can also place a hefty burden upon their owner. In fact, it's safe to say this could pose a serious problem for many people; not only does a smartphone loss represent a loss of the above-mentioned features, but could represent a financial hardship, expose private data to untrustworthy individuals, or even result in identity theft or fraudulent activity. It happened to me a while back and I survived the experience, though not entirely unscathed.
With that in mind, here are some tips to help you reduce the burden of a lost smartphone as much as possible, both before and after the unthinkable occurs. This article will focus on Android and iOS smartphones, since these are used by a majority of consumers and businesses alike. It further assumes that you either have a Google account active on your Android or an Apple account active on your iOS device.
Before a loss
Write down all relevant details
You should record all details about your phone such as the phone number (obviously), IMEI (International Mobile Station Equipment Identity) and/or MEID (mobile equipment identifier). This will help you identify the phone if it is lost, either to your wireless carrier or if it is retrieved later and you need to confirm it is your phone.
Your carrier may have provided you with documentation containing these details, but you can also retrieve them from the phone itself.
Android: Go to Settings and tap "About Phone" or "About Device." Record all relevant information.
iOS: Go to Settings, "General" then "About." Record all relevant information.
You should also write down information such as your wireless carrier's phone number/website address and your contract information. Memorize any related IDs and passwords.
It goes without saying you should keep this information somewhere other than your smartphone, such as on a card in your wallet or glove compartment (if you carry a purse with your smartphone and this information and then the purse is stolen it goes without saying it won't be of much use to you).
Use a password, set a screen lock interval and enable self-destruct
Every smartphone should be set up with some type of password requirement for access and configured to perform a factory reset if the password is entered incorrectly several times - usually the limit is 10. It should also lock the screen within a short window of time if the phone is not being used. It may be time-consuming having to enter a password every time you use the phone, but this will be offset by the sense of security it will provide if the phone is lost or stolen.
Android: Go to Settings, "Lock Screen" and tap "Screen Lock." There should be a variety of security options to choose from such as a PIN, a pattern (a series of specific finger swipes such as in an "H" shape) or a password (the best option). Set the appropriate option, then at the "Lock Screen" page check off the "Auto factory reset" setting. Tape "Lock automatically" and choose a timeframe for how quickly the screen should lock after it turns off - 5 seconds is probably a good choice.
iOS: Go to Settings, choose "Passcode," then "Turn Passcode On." You will be prompted to enter a passcode twice. You can then determine how quickly the passcode will activate after the screen turns off - immediately or after 1 minute are the best options. Turn on the "Erase Data" function and the iPhone will reset itself to factory defaults after 10 failed passcode attempts.
Don't keep sensitive data on your phone
Even with a password in place it still might be possible for someone to get at confidential data on a smartphone. Perhaps they pick up the phone before the screen lock activates, they guess your password (or see you entering it) or they just pull out an external micro-SD card (if applicable) and extract information from it. A good rule of thumb is to never keep anything on your smartphone which you wouldn't want the world to see. This includes credit card data, social security numbers, bank accounts, IDs/passwords, business-related emails or confidential text messages.
But if you must carry sensitive data, use encryption
However, sometimes it's impossible to avoid keeping files on your phone which are for your eyes only, such as when using it for work on the go while traveling. If that's the case, you should turn device encryption on and make sure it applies to any external storage cards you might be using. This may constitute a performance hit, but it's worth it for they peace of mind.
The good news for iOS users is that encryption should already be enabled on their device by default, and since there are no external SD cards involved all that's required is to enable a passcode as described in the previous step.
Android users can follow these steps (note your device may need to be charged to 80% or plugged into an AC adapter to proceed):
Go to Settings, "Security" and choose "Encrypt Device." You'll be prompted to enter a PIN or password to decrypt your phone each time you power it on. Set this and then proceed to encrypt the phone - please note that you should never interrupt the encryption process, since this may cause a data loss.
The same process applies to any external SD cards you may have; at the "Security" screen you will see an option to "Encrypt external SD card." This may take considerably longer than encrypting your phone if the card has a higher storage capacity, so it might be best to perform this function overnight.
Insurance plans are available for your phone and these can soften the blow of a loss. Whether it's worth the investment is a personal choice (and you may feel insurance costs will just wind up causing you to pay for a new phone over time, whether you need it or not), but if you feel a smartphone loss or theft is a significant risk it would be worth consideration. Talk to your wireless carrier for further details.
Know what's on your phone
This may seem obvious, but thanks to the ease with which users can install mobile apps (the Google Play and iTunes stores are geared towards facilitating the easy installation of programs) your device may have a tangle of accounts and data that could further your risk if it's lost. After all, as the saying goes, you can't manage what you can't measure. If you have LinkedIn on your phone, for instance, and it is compromised by someone who then accesses this account it could pose a risk to your professional reputation.
Only install apps on your phone which you know you will use regularly. If possible, set them not to log in automatically (email likely won't have this capability since the password is generally stored for easy access). Keep a list of your programs and data if possible - a simple sheet of paper will suffice - so if your phone is lost you will know what accounts may be at risk.
Synchronize your data
Your smartphone should never hold a single copy of important data, whether documents, pictures or some other file. File storage services which can synchronize your data among devices and desktops/laptops are available for use, and you should choose one and store your data within it. Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and Apple iCloud are all excellent examples which offer both free (5 Gb-15 Gb limits) and paid versions with more storage. Android and iOS users will likely already have Google Drive or Apple iCloud set up, depending on which type of phone they have, but Dropbox and Microsoft OneDrive can also be installed separately via the corresponding Android or iOS app which can be installed from the Google Play or iTunes stores.
Any one of these cloud storage services will work in the background to ensure that your data is synchronized with other devices (it's important to install the corresponding desktop applications if you want the data to be sent from or to a computer). Even if you only set it up on your mobile device it will still provide access to your files in the event of a smartphone loss; you can access your account via the website links provided above.
Apple iCloud, Google+'s Photo Backup option and Dropbox's Camera Upload feature can be especially handy for pictures. These will automatically copy any pictures your take from your smartphone to your cloud storage account where these can be accessed from other devices (if applicable). This means you no longer have to manually copy photos from the phone to your computer (Google can also handle this for you as discussed in the next section).
Back up device data
This part is easy; both Android and iOS devices can be set up to automatically back up device data to their respective environments, and in fact are probably already doing so, but you should confirm to make sure this is enabled.
Android: Go to Settings, "Backup and reset," then confirm that "Back up my Data" is checked off and your Google account is shown under "Backup account." You may also want to go to Settings, "Accounts," tap "Google" then select your Google account. Ensure all the functions you want to preserve are checked for sync (app data, calendar, contacts, photos, etc.) If you enable photo sync these will be available automatically in your Google+ account.
iOS: Tap Settings, "iCloud," "Backup" (or Settings, "iCloud," "Storage & Backup") and ensure the feature is enabled.
Use a tracking device
Built-in tracking functions to help locate your device are available. Android offers a free service called Android Device Manager which can show you the approximate location of your phone, and iOS provides a similar option on iCloud.com called "Find My iPhone" (the direct link is icloud.com/#find). Each also provides security options such as erasing the phone.
More elaborate apps are also available, such as "Where's My Droid" for Android and "Find my iPhone" for iOS. "Where's My Droid?" provides inventive options to help locate your phone including forced ring (even if the ringer is off), vibration, GPS tracking, and triggering the camera function then uploading the resulting pictures to a website where you can view them. "Find my iPhone" isn't necessary to locate a missing iPhone, but it allows you to track it using another iOS device.
Whether you use the built-in functions or a specific app, you must ensure the options are enabled/set the app up before losing your smartphone (and you should not disable GPS or location services).
Android: Go to Google Settings from the device's app menu then tap "Android Device Manager." Check off "Remotely locate this device" and "Allow remote lock and erase." Go the Where's My Droid page and install the app on your device if you want the more robust functions it provides.
iOS: Tap Settings, iCloud, and ensure "Find My iPhone" is turned on. Go to the "Find my iPhone" page and install this on your phone if you want to use another iOS device to find it.
Use common sense
This should be a no-brainer, but many device losses are the result of simple carelessness - leaving a smartphone in a public bathroom after washing your hands, or putting it in a pocket then losing it at the movies. Cab companies and airliners are rife with missing smartphones. Be mindful of where you're using the phone and how - and don't attract attention which might provoke a theft. Keep your smartphone secure via a holster attached to your belt loop or zipped into an inner coat pocket.
After a loss
Whether your smartphone is lost or possibly stolen will determine your initial actions. If you're taking pictures at the Grand Canyon and your device falls in and shatters a thousand feet below, at least you'll know your accounts and data aren't at risk from unauthorized access. On the other hand, if your phone disappears at a convention you might get it back from a lost and found... or it might be in someone's pocket.
In the first scenario, there's not much to be done other than to purchase a new phone and configure it for use with your existing account(s). Your settings, data and applications can then be restored via prior backups.
The second scenario is trickier. It may be tempting to log into your carrier or phone provider's website and immediately deactivate or erase the phone in case it's been stolen. However, the first thing you should do is call the phone to see if you can hear it nearby, and if that fails use location services to try to find it.
Android: Log into the "Where's My Droid" commander interface to try to locate your phone; it provides the following options:
You can also try to use Google's Android Device Manager.
iOS: Logintoicloud.com/#find with your Apple ID/password. Click "All Devices," then choose your iPhone. It should show you the location with a green dot (online) or gray dot (offline, so this means the location shown is the last place the device was seen online).
Note: you should never try to apprehend a thief if ou believe your smartphone has been stolen. Follow the next steps.
Notify the authorities
If your phone has been stolen and you can confirm this by finding it via location services, notify the police immediately and work with them to try to recover your device.
Even if you're not sure a theft occurred, it's always a good idea to notify available authorities; building security, transit police or the local police department if you suspect your phone has been stolen. If it was merely lost, it may turn up and if you provide your contact information they'll have a way of returning it to you.
Change all passwords
No matter how certain you are that someone can't log into your phone, you should change the passwords on all accounts used on the device. This is where having a list of the apps and accounts on the phone will come in handy. You should do this even if you think there's a chance the phone might turn up.
Erase the device
If you're been unsuccessful in locating or recovering your phone, it's time to erase the device. Use either the Android Device Manager or the iCloud site to do so. However, be aware that when the phone is reset to factory defaults a thief can then use it, whereas he/she may have been thwarted by the password. Immediately follow the next step.
Alert your carrier and disable service
Contact your wireless carrier via the information you previously logged and explain the situation to them. They should be able to quickly disable all voice/data service to the phone. It's crucial that you not take this step before erasing the device, as this will render you incapable of doing so.
Replace the phone
This may be a bitter pill to swallow, but the good news is that new phones come out quite frequently, so you may find yourself with a better more advanced model than the one that was lost. At the very least you might get a good deal on the same model if it's been around for a little while.
Hopefully these tips will help reduce your chances of a smartphone loss or at the very least ensure you are protected if this misfortune occurs. Always remember that a device can be easily replaced but accounts and data are likely more important - and valuable - in the long run. While a $500 phone replacement isn't an auspicious prospect, compromised bank accounts or stolen social security number can be far more painful in the long run. The convenience provided by a smartphone must be carefully balanced by securing the access it offers to your financial, professional and personal life.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.