What do a bar, the back of a cab, and a public bathroom have in common? They're all places I've enjoyed Wendy's chili, and forgotten my phone. Fortunately, my friends or a helpful stranger have always spotted my phone before I left it behind for good.
I won't be so lucky forever, though. At some point, I'll end up like a lot of people, and lose my precious smartphone. When it happens I'm going to have to take a few steps to make sure that my data doesn't end up in someone else's hands. And if you lose your phone, you'll need to follow these steps, too.
For iPhone owners
So your smartphone is currently sliding around the backseat of an Uber halfway across town, and you want to get it back. Well, good news. If your phone is still powered on, you can use location tracking to find it on the map, and retrieve it.
If you've got an iPhone, you might have heard of a little feature called Find My iPhone. It works exactly like it sounds it should in that it helps you find your iPhone, or any other Apple device you own. Since your phone is missing, though, you'll have to open the app on another iOS device like your iPad to use the feature.
Don't have another iOS device, then you can sign into iCloud.com using your Apple (AAPL) ID, and use Find My iPhone via your web browser. From here you can locate your iPhone on a map. You can also use the feature to locate your iPad, Mac, Apple Watch, or AirPods. If your phone was stolen, call the police and let them handle it. Don’t go looking for it on your own.
If your phone is dead, Find My iPhone will still let you know its last location before its battery gave up the ghost.
If your phone's battery is still running, you can use Find My iPhone to make your device play a sound, which helps if you lost your phone or tablet between your couch cushions. The distance on this is unlimited since it uses the cloud to send your phone a signal to make noise. Similarly, you can put your phone into Lost Mode, which will let you display a number on your phone's screen so that whoever finds it will know how to reach you.
When in Lost Mode, Apple Pay will be disabled, so no one will be able to use your credit or debit cards stored in your Apple Wallet. Find My iPhone also automatically enables Activation Lock, which means someone can't turn off Find My iPhone or reset your device without also entering your username and password.
But what if you've lost your phone and there's no chance of getting it back? Then your best bet to ensure the data stored on your device stays private is to erase your iPhone. To do that, navigate to Find My iPhone, and choose the Erase option. If your iPhone is dead or turned off, it will erase itself as soon as it connects to the internet. If you do end up recovering your phone, after erasing it, you'll have to restore it from a previous backup.
It's important to note that even if you erase your phone, the Authentication Lock will still be active. So if someone stole your iPhone, they won't be able to restart it without entering your username and password. Basically, your stolen iPhone turns into a fancy paperweight.
For Android smartphone owners
If you're an Android smartphone user, that is you've got a Google (GOOG, GOOGL) Pixel, Samsung, Motorola, LG or other device that runs Google's operating system, you can locate, lock, and erase it just like an iPhone owner.
To get started, you can either type "Find my device" into Google, navigate to android.com/find, or open the Find My Device app on your phone. You'll have to have downloaded that app before losing your device, though.
Regardless of which method you choose, the results will all be the same. Once you've logged into the Find My Device app website or app, you'll be met with a screen that shows you your Android devices alongside a map. Tap or click on the device you want to find, and it will automatically appear on the map, as long as it's turned on.
From here, you can choose to have your device play a noise, lock it down with a passcode, or completely erase it. Like Apple's Find My iPhone, if your phone is off and you use these commands, they will automatically take effect when the phone is turned back on and connected to the internet.
What to do before you lose your phone
If you haven't lost your phone yet, and you're reading this to avoid work, family, or something else, there are a few steps you can take to ensure that you'll be able to locate your device in the event it does go missing.
First off, make sure you have location services enabled on your device. You'll also want to ensure that you have a screen lock. That could be a passcode or some kind of biometric lock. This way, if your phone is lost, no one can unlock it. And don't forget to download Find My Device for Android. Apple users, the Find My iPhone comes preinstalled.
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Email Daniel Howley at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.