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As the carrier of contacts, sensitive account information, and gigabytes of precious photos, a modern cell phone is a deeply personal item and essential to the functioning of daily life. A lost phone can immediately lead to panic, and those feelings can quickly intensify if the phone ends up in the hands of a thief who wants to mine personal information for nefarious purposes.

If your phone is lost or stolen, it is important not to waste time feeling helpless. While the chance of recovery might be slim, owners should immediately try to track their phones and take steps to protect any stored data from being misused by criminals.

The Implications of a Lost or Stolen Phone

When a phone goes missing, it can be easy to focus on the inconvenience and wonder “How can I find my lost phone?” However, even while trying to trace the device and see if it might be recoverable, it is important to prepare for the worst.

Smartphones carry a wealth of personal information and other sensitive data that can be attractive to criminals. If they gain access to a lost phone, criminals can carry out numerous attacks and crimes, such as:

  • Stealing money from bank accounts linked to the phone.
  • Make unauthorized purchases using credit cards stored in the phone’s wallet.
  • Access any stored login credentials for accounts.
  • Lock the phone’s owner out of their email or social media accounts, or banking apps.
  • Steal personal data to carry out identity theft.
  • Use the phone to bypass multifactor authentication on linked accounts.
  • Launch phishing, smishing, or vishing scams against contacts.
  • Blackmail the owners with sensitive photos or other information stored on the phone.
  • Track the owner’s location.
  • Use details on the phone to carry out financial fraud.

With so many far-reaching implications, it is essential that owners of a lost phone take immediate steps to either locate the phone or protect any sensitive data on a stolen phone from ill-intentioned third parties.

I lost my phone, how can I find it?

As soon as their phone goes missing, the first thing most people think is “Can I find my lost phone?” If the phone has simply gone missing, it may be possible to trace and recover it. Here are a few steps to take to try and locate a lost phone:

  1. Call the device to see if someone answers.
  2. Try to track the phone’s location using a finder app, such as Apple’s “Find My”. These apps also allow users to play a loud alarm if the phone is nearby.
  3. Lock the phone—this means third parties cannot access it but also displays a custom message with the owner’s contact details.

In the best-case scenario, a good Samaritan will answer the phone and agree to restore it to its owner. However, tracking the phone’s location can present a dilemma. If it’s in a familiar location—such as a neighborhood bar—it’s tempting to simply go to the indicated place and pick it up. However, if the phone’s location changes frequently—and no one answers repeated calls to the device—it may have been stolen. In this instance, it might be worth asking local authorities to get involved.

If I’ve lost my phone, what should I do?

Given how essential phones are to the smooth functioning of most people’s daily lives, having a device go missing can be nerve-wracking. A lost or stolen phone elicits many questions, such as “Can I find my lost phone?” Assuming steps have already been taken to try and locate and recover the phone, the tenor of these questions change, with people asking “What should I do when I’ve lost my phone? The answer is that, if dealing with an irrevocably lost or stolen phone, steps should immediately be taken to protect all the sensitive data stored on the device and prevent any further implications.

Lock and Erase the phone

In some cases, it may simply be impossible to recover a stolen phone. For those thinking “I’ve tried to find my lost phone, but it’s gone,” the most critical thing to do is immediately lock and erase the phone. This is easy to do remotely through the phone finder app, so even if a hacker tries to bypass the passcode or biometric authentication, they would not be able to access the device or the information stored on it.

Change all stored passwords

Even after erasing the phone, another thing to remember when thinking “What should I do if my phone is stolen,” is to reset any passwords stored on the device. This includes passwords and PINs for social media accounts, emails, and banking apps. It is also worth changing the passwords to any accounts stored on the phone’s browsers, such as streaming services like Netflix and ecommerce sites like Amazon. This way, even if a hacker manages to access the stolen phone, they are less likely to be able to hack into these accounts. If using a password manager, be sure to change the master password for this, too.

Call your service provider

After the initial shock of losing a phone, people might think about whether anyone needs to be informed and if so, “How do I report a lost phone.” One entity that should immediately be informed is the phone service provider. They can quickly disable the phone’s SIM card—cutting off access to the mobile network and data services—to prevent malicious actors from misusing the account, impersonating the owner, or receiving one-time passwords to bypass two-factor authentications.

Call the bank

Most smartphone owners regularly use banking apps to easily manage their financial affairs. As such, it can be easy for ill-intentioned third parties to access these apps and accounts on a lost phone. Owners of a missing and irrecoverable phone should alert their bank to prevent this. Banks can help monitor the accounts in question for any suspicious activity—though, of course, the owner should, too—and offer advice on any further actions that need to be taken.

Block stored cards

Most people use phone wallets—like Apple Pay or Google Pay—without really considering what would happen if they lost their phone. The fact is that it is possible for anyone who physically has the device to use cards stored in its wallet. As such, when thinking about “What should I do if my phone is stolen,” remember to alert the bank or credit card provider of any cards that are stored on the phone. It might be necessary to cancel these cards or—if they have already been used—dispute fraudulent charges. Even after blocking these cards, it is important to regularly monitor these accounts for any unexpected charges.

Alert contacts

Most people would likely tell friends or family if they’ve lost their phones, if only to alert them that they might be uncontactable until they get a replacement. However, there is another reason to tell contacts about a stolen phone. Telling people “I’ve lost my phone!” can put them on alert against any potential attacks from scammers. For example, hackers might try to execute smishing or malware attacks against contacts stored on the phone.

Notify insurance providers

After realizing “I can’t find my lost phone,” another thought that follows quite quickly is, “I need to get a new phone.” However, it can become expensive to replace a stolen phone, especially with a top-of-the-line smartphone. Some phones may be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty—for example, Apple offers AppleCare+ while Samsung has Samsung Care+. Other cautious owners may list their smartphones under their home insurance policy, while phones lost in another country may be covered by travel insurance. If there is a chance that the missing phone may be covered by an insurance policy, it is worth speaking to the relevant insurance provider to see if they can pay for a replacement, or at least offset the cost of one.

File a police report

Finally, people dealing with a missing phone may wonder “How do I report a lost phone?” This may require filing a police report to procure official documentation of the stolen phone. While the police may not do much to try and recover the phone, filing a report—which may require the device’s serial or IMEA number—means they can trace it if the phone is ever recovered. Insurance companies may also require a police report to process claims, while banking institutions may want the police report to reverse any fraudulent charges. Remember, though, that in some cases the police will only handle cases of stolen phones, not lost devices.

10 Tips for Cell phone Security

If the best defense is a good offense, then it follows that the best way to find a lost or stolen phone is to prevent its misplacement or theft in the first place. There are also numerous safeguards that cell phone owners can implement to protect missing devices. However, to ensure that these protective measures are as effective as possible, users should implement them as soon as they set up a new device.

Here are 10 best practices to employ to protect a stolen or lost phone:

  1. Enable location tracking: iPhones have the “Find My” app while Android devices have “Find My Device”. Both of these allow users to track the location of their devices and remotely erase them.
  2. Allow automatic backups: Enabling this means that all photos, videos, documents, contacts, and other important information can be recovered if the phone goes missing.
  3. Set immediate auto-locks: This ensures the phone is always locked when not actively being used, helping to prevent thieves or hackers from accessing stored information.
  4. Enable biometric authentication and strong passcodes: Most smartphones now allow users to set complex passcodes—for example, one that requires six digits—as well as the ability to unlock a device with face-scanning. Using both makes it more difficult for third parties to access the device.
  5. Record the phone’s serial and International Mobile Equipment Identification (IMEI) numbers: Both are unique identifiers for the device—they may be useful for recovering a stolen phone or filing a police report.
  6. Lock the SIM card: In most cases, phone service providers will allow customers to set a PIN for their SIM card so that third parties cannot use or make changes to the account, such as with SIM swapping attacks.
  7. Avoid storing account passwords: It can be tempting to store passwords on a phone’s browser, but this means hackers can potentially access these. Try storing passwords on a password manager instead.
  8. Try to use authentication apps instead of one-time passwords by SMS: Many email providers, banks, and social media sites require users to set up two-factor authentications to protect their accounts. But, receiving authentication codes by SMS means hackers may be able to receive these on stolen phones and then access these accounts. Where possible, try to use different authentication methods, such as third-party apps.
  9. Keep the phone physically secure: When in public, avoid leaving devices where they might be easily stolen, such as on tables or in back pockets.
  10. Add a backup phone number: When setting up a phone, be sure to add a secondary phone number that will be easily accessible to the account. This can make it easier to track or manage a stolen phone remotely.

In conclusion, the loss or theft of a modern cell phone goes beyond mere inconvenience; it poses a significant threat to one's personal security and privacy. The potential ramifications, ranging from financial loss to identity theft, underscore the importance of swift and decisive action. While the immediate instinct might be to find the lost phone, it is equally crucial to prepare for the worst-case scenario. By leveraging phone finder apps, implementing security measures, and taking proactive steps like remote locking and erasing, individuals can mitigate the risks associated with a missing phone. Beyond these measures, notifying relevant parties, such as service providers, banks, and contacts, is essential to prevent further harm. As technology continues to play an integral role in our lives, responsible ownership and security practices become paramount to preserving the sanctity of personal information in an ever-connected world.

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What to do if your phone is lost or stolen

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