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How to Track and Secure Your Lost or Stolen Phone, No Matter Who Made It

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Yahoo Tech

Last week, a group of wireless carriers unanimously agreed to include anti-theft tools in their mobile devices as a way to prevent the increasing trend of smartphone theft.  

Under the voluntary commitment, companies including Apple, AT&T, Samsung, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless have all pledged to include free “kill switch” tools on every smartphone sold in the United States after July 2015. The kill switch will let owners shut down their phones from afar after they’ve been taken from them.

That’s a step in the right direction. But you don’t have to wait until next summer to enable security tools on your beloved smartphone. Manufacturers have provided device-tracking apps for years now, and there are a variety of services that will help wipe a smartphone’s data or prevent reactivation if a phone is lost or stolen.

Here’s a brief guide to ensure that your phone — and all the data on it — is as safe as can be.

Phones running Google’s Android operating system come with their own location-tracking technology. Here’s how to enable it:

1. Tap the Apps icon. 

2. Find and open Google Settings.

3. Select Location.

4. Check the box under the header Access location. If you haven’t synced your Google account with your phone, you’ll have to do that.

5. Once you’ve gone through those steps, you’ll have to visit the Android Device Manager website and accept Google’s terms (which are displayed below and somewhat unsettling!).

6. From there, you’ll need to select Setup Lock & Erase.

7. A box will pop up that asks to message a notification to your phone. Click Send.

8. Tap the notification on your phone.

9. You’ll be brought to a page that details the functions of this feature. Once you select Activate, you’ll be able to remotely wipe your phone’s data, change the screen unlock password, and lock the screen.

Mission accomplished! Now feel free to go leave your phone at your favorite local coffee shop. (Please don’t.)

Anyone with an Apple device is automatically gifted an app called Find My iPhone/iPad/iPod. It’s introduced to you when you first set up your device. Perhaps you’ve already enabled it. If not, here’s a brief guide to doing so:

1. If you haven’t created an iCloud account, do that. This is how Apple will store your data and access it remotely. Note that you can track more than one device in the Find My iPhone app as long as you use the same iCloud account for each.

2. Ensure that your device is running at least iOS 5. Ideally you’d be running iOS 7, because that version offers more security features.

3. Go to Settings.

4. Go to iCloud. If you’re asked to sign in, enter your Apple ID.

5. Scroll down until you see Find My iPhone, and swipe the toggle to turn it on. When a confirmation message pops up, tap Allow.

If you lose your phone, you’ll be able to see its latest location on a map at this website. You’ll also be able to make it play a sound, put it into “lost mode” (which locks the screen with a message of your choice), or wipe the phone altogether.

Once, I watched my iPhone travel around Manhattan in a cab for a day (a map of its journey is below). I added a lock screen with an alternate number and frantically made it beep over and over again until it died. The driver saw my information, called me, and returned my phone. 

Those of you with Windows Phones have a built-in app called Find My Phone to help you track your device. You’ll need to make sure you have a Microsoft account before you enable it. Then …

1. On your desktop, go to windowsphone.com. Sign in with the same account you use to sign in with on your phone.

2. In the upper-right corner of the screen, hover your mouse over the phone to bring up a drop-down menu, and then click Find My Phone.

3. From there, you’ll be able to see your phone’s location on a map, make it ring, lock it, and erase all its data.

4. If you’d like to adjust this feature’s settings, you’ll need to access the Find My Phone app on your phone via your App list.

5. From there, tap the Settings square  and then select Find My Phone.

Settings icon

6. You’ll be offered two options: Send apps to my phone using push notifications (not SMS) and Save my phone’s location periodically and before the battery runs out to make it easier to find. I’d recommend enabling both of these. The first because, as a default, the Find My Phone services texts commands to your phone. Switching that to push notifications will be cheaper, faster, and less limiting. The second will automatically store your phone’s location every couple of hours in case its battery dies while it’s lost. This can be a life-saver, because batteries die a lot.

All BlackBerry 10 phones have a tracking feature called BlackBerry Protect built into them. If you’re running an earlier operating system, you can download the free BlackBerry Protect app here. Just like all the other operating systems, you’ll need to have a special BlackBerry log-in to link your phone.

1. To add a device that’s running BlackBerry 10 OS to your Protect account, swipe down from the top of the home screen.

2. Tap Settings → Protect.

3. Turn on BlackBerry Protect.

4. From there, you’ll be able to see the current location of your precious phone on a map, make the device ring, add a message on your home screen, lock your phone and reset its password, and wipe your device altogether.

And that, my dear readers, is how you avoid losing your trusty phone sidekick — or, at least, how you can locate it once you do. Godspeed.

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her here.