For most people, a lost or stolen cell phone means calling your service provider, shutting down your account and moving on with your life. But losing a cell phone is less about the inability to place a call than it is the sudden absence of your most personal data—photos, e-mails, browser history and music collection. So there's something to be said for recovering, rather than replacing, your handheld device of choice.
We can't guarantee they'll work every time, but if you're patient and willing to risk defeat, you may be able to find the your phone with these tips:
· Keep Your Data Safe. While you're off playing detective, do your best to ensure that your phone isn't being used for expensive international calls, and that photos from that long weekend in South Padre Island don't find their way into the wrong hands. "There are things you can do that won't help avoid your phone being lost, but will make you more prepared when you do lose it," says Bob Hersch, global managing director of Accenture's Workplace Technology and Collaboration practice. "Make sure the device is locked with PIN access, and that the phone times out and locks itself."
· Make It Easy to Return. "At the end of the day, it's going to turn out that most missing phones are lost and not stolen," says Dave Taylor, who runs a technology resource Web site. Help Good Samaritans on their noble quest: program your phone so that the display shows your contact e-mail. Be sure the display is visible even if the phone is locked.
· Load Your Phone With Location Software. There are several kinds of tracking software that will help you pinpoint your phone after it's gone missing: iHound, an iPhone app, can track your phone using GPS if the application is turned on. It can also print out a police report with the last known location of the phone, says Gary Moskoff, the founder of iHound. Gadget Trak, another app, works on iPhones, BlackBerrys and Windows Mobile phones, while services like accutracking.com and networksinmotion.com work on supported GPS phones.
· Catch Thieves in the Act. Ask your carrier if it offers a remote network for data sent on a smart phone, and if that network can be accessed online. If so, and you suspect someone is using your missing phone, you'll be able to see any activity—including the text of any e-mails sent and, in some cases, photos taken—from your laptop.
· Pin Down a Location. Using photos recovered from a stolen phone, you may be able to find where those shots were taken. When a cell-phone camera takes a picture, it's encoded with data (called exif) that records the details of the shot, including time and—if your phone has GPS—place. "When that photo is posted online, you can often uncover the latitude and longitude of where the photo was taken," says Rob Spitler, director of Forward Direction, a computer forensics company. To do so, you need to download an add-on for the Firefox browser called Exif Viewer. "When you point to the pictures, it can pull up the exif data for you," he says. Of course, just knowing the coordinates of where a photo was taken doesn't mean you can start banging on doors in that particular neighborhood, but the information can be helpful when filling out a police report or looking to locate a specific destination in the photos.
· Involve the Accessory. Access your account information via your carrier's Web site. Here, you'll be able to see the most up-to-date copy of your bill. Taylor suggests that you call the last number dialed from your stolen phone and tell the person who answers that you've found their friend's phone. The person you're calling probably won't know that their friend is using a stolen device. With luck, the friend will give up the name and an alternate contact number of the thief.
· Enlist the Cavalry. The Internet is full of bored browsers with a thirst for justice. If you do recover photos from your missing phone, posting them online can help you identify and contact the perpetrator. One reader sent photos and e-mails from his father's stolen iPhone to the customer advocacy blog Consumerist.com. Later that day, the thief was identified and arrangements were made to return the phone. And when someone stole his friend's Sidekick, a New York City man created a Web page with photos, detailing his attempts to get the phone back. The viral interest created by the site lead to the phone's recovery by police. But beware—Net vigilantes can get nasty, and revealing the thief's identity online could be an invitation for the public to harass the poor fool who snatched your cell, and perhaps take matters too far.