My sister recently had her iPhone stolen, and it occurred to me that not enough people know how to help protect their iPhone/iPad from theft, what to do if it gets lost or stolen, and the steps to take even if they’re unable to get it back. Using a combination of security tips and geolocation, using Find My iPhone, you should have a much higher chance of recovering your device. Note that although this article is iPhone/iPad-centric… the principles apply to any smartphone!
NEW! Please refer to my Find My iPhone FAQ for the answers to some frequently asked questions (especially before asking a question in the comments).
Step 1 – Protecting Your Device
First, a few relevant iPhone/iPad security points:
- Always use the passcode lock: Settings > General > Passcode Lock. This is the most basic of security features, and probably the one I also recommend the most. Most people tend to store emails, contacts, SMS, calendars, and all kinds of other info on their smartphones. In the event your phone is lost or stolen, you’re going to want to ensure that a random stranger won’t be able to get access to your personal information. Set Simple Passcode to off so that you can set a passcode with more than four digits (I recommend five or six). I also recommend setting it to Auto-Lock after 1 minute.
- Update your iOS devices: Keep your iPhone or iPad up to date by reguarly applying updated in iTunes. This will ensure you have the latest security patches, and fix bugs such as the numerous lockscreen bypass issues.
- Set a SIM PIN: Settings > Phone > SIM PIN > On. This is probably one of the most underused security features (which exists on any phone), and prevents someone from removing your SIM card, placing it in another phone, and making unlimited calls.
- [Optional] Erase Data after 10 failed passcode attempts: Settings > General > Passcode Lock. This feature allows you to make sure that someone won’t be able to brute force their way into your device. After ten attempts, the iPhone/iPad will erase itself. This one is up to you, as it does create two potential problems. Firstly, it could allow someone with enough time to erase your device (annoying); and secondly if the device gets erased, you won’t be able to track it. I still recommend using this.
- [Optional] Set a Customised Lockscreen Image: Create a custom image for your iPhone’s lock screen that displays your contact details in case someone finds your phone (and is honest enough to return it)! Don’t give too much info, but your first name and an alternate contact number will do. You can also put in your email address, but I don’t recommend doing so if it reveals your full name, or company name. I’ve thrown together an iPhone Lockscreen Generator to help you create your own lockscreen image.
- [Advanced] Use the iPhone Configuration Utility: Apple provides a free iPhone Configuration Utility (Mac/Windows) that allows you to set higher security requirements. These include a longer passcode, less attempts (5) before an automatic wipe, and other security settings. This tool is normally used by Enterprise users to configure company phones, but advanced users may be interested in looking at the options provided.
Next, find your device’s Serial Number and IMEI Number (phones only), and write them down somewhere (not on the device), as you may need these at a later date. The IMEI is a unique number used by GSM networks to identify valid phones, and can be used to block lost or stolen devices (this is explained further down). On iOS you can find these in Settings > General > About. On any mobile phone you can get the IMEI by entering *#06# on the phone’s keypad.
Step 2 – Setting up Tracking
When Apple released iOS 4.2, they announced that they were making their Find My iPhone service free to everyone. The service allows you to geolocate your device, send it messages, or wipe it remotely. To set up Find My iPhone on your iOS 7 device, follow these instructions:
On the device, tap Settings > iCloud. Then, either sign in with your Apple ID (the account you use for iTunes or App Store purchases), or create a new Apple ID for free. Once signed in, activate Find My iPhone by turning it on at the bottom of the iCloud settings pane. (Apple)
For Find My iPhone to function properly, you will need to have Location Services turned On (Settings > Location Services). Once you have it set up, remember to log in and test it to make sure it’s working! You should see your device on a map:
On a privacy side-note: If you enable Find My iPhone on your device, remember that anyone who can gain access to your iCloud account will be able to see where you are. If you ever want to disable Find My iPhone, you can do this in: Settings > iCloud > Find My iPhone > Off. If your device is lost or stolen when this is setting is off, you won’t be able to track it.
Step 3 – Recovering Your Device
So, you’ve gone and lost your iPhone, or had your iPad stolen. Well done! Now we can have fun trying to get it back. First of all… if it’s your phone, have you tried calling it? If it’s a shiny iPhone 5S, chances are this will happen, unless you’re really lucky. Stay calm, I’m here to help! If you’ve followed the steps above, you should be able to geolocate your device. For this to work you will need to hope that your iPhone or iPad has an of internet connection (3G or Wifi).
As you hopefully tested in Step 2 above, log in to Find My iPhone to see where your phone is. If you’re still in a bar and your device has just gone missing, or you want to be able to stalk the thief, you can install the free Find My iPhone app onto another (friend’s?) iOS device. At this point you can try to track down and confront the thief yourself (not recommended unless you have backup) – or – file a police report and get them to go pick it up for you. You can also send messages to the phone to try and convince them to return it.
If you can’t track your iPhone on the first try, keep trying, as sometimes it may be out of signal range or out of power. Try putting your device into Lost Mode. A thief will probably need to plug the phone in prior to restoring it, so if you’re paying attention you may be able to get his home location just before your phone is erased!
You can also get Find My iPhone to send you an email when your device is located! Note that the device’s location will be available in Find My iPhone for only 24 hours (presumably for privacy reasons).
Step 4 – Recovery Failed: What Now?
So now your iPhone’s been missing for a while, and you haven’t been able to track it down. The thief may have turned the phone off, erased it or removed the SIM card. Or the thief is in another country, and you’re getting no help from the authorities (and don’t want to get it yourself). At this point tracking is unfortunately no longer an option, and many people give up. Do not despair, for there is yet hope!
- If, for some reason, you didn’t set a SIM PIN, the first thing you’ll want to do is inform your phone provider/carrier to disable your SIM and potentially save you many dollars of calls.
- Next, file a police report and give them your device’s serial number and/or IMEI. Thieves occasionally get nabbed with a whole bunch of stolen stuff, this way they’ll be able to return your device to you.
- You may want to consider wiping your device to ensure that your personal data does not fall into the wrong hands. You can remotely wipe your device from within Find My iPhone, but note that once your device is wiped, you will no longer be able to track it.
- If you’re a corporate user and your iPhone/iPad is configured to sync with Exchange, you can also remotely wipe your device through your Outlook Web Access (OWA). Simply log in, click Options in the top right, then Mobile Devices in the left-hand menu, and finally select the device you want to wipe and click Wipe All Data from Device.
The final step, to be taken when you’re pretty sure your phone will never return, is to disable it so that it will be useless to anyone else. In some countries can give your carrier your phone’s IMEI, and they can blacklist it, essentially rendering the phone useless (nice paperweight though). At that point if you do manage to get your phone back, however, you won’t be able to use it as it’s not possible to remove a device from the IMEI blacklist (to my knowledge). Note that not all carriers in all countries are willing to add devices to the blacklist (the US recently introduced a blacklist).
I hope that this article will help at least one person to successfully recover a lost or stolen device. If you know anyone who may not be familiar the ways they can protect themselves, I encourage you to share this with them. If you have any questions please feel free to post a comment below, but first check out the FAQ!
[Updated 10/05/2011] Locate Lost or Stolen Macs with ‘Find My Mac’ in Lion and iCloud!
[Updated 16/01/2012] Frequently Asked Questions About Find My iPhone (and iPad)
[Updated 30/08/2012] New “Lost Mode” in Find My iPhone (iCloud)