Source: iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

What to do when your smartphone goes missing

18. November 2021 Published by Raphael Doerr

It’s happened to 4 out of 10 of us, usually on vacation, mostly to women, and it’s usually never found again: The mobile phone and smartphone that has been lost or stolen. According to a representative survey commissioned by the digital association Bitkom, 10 percent of respondents said their phone had been stolen once – and five percent have even had it happen to them several times. Over 183 smartphones a day are stolen in the United Kingdom alone – which amounts to 66,795 a year worth a grand total of 27 million pounds. Most of these thefts are committed in the capital city London. Although most people hardly ever take their eyes off their digital gadgets, they still keep getting lost or being stolen. The recent “Lost & Found” survey by the IT security company ESET reveals that every one in five out of 1,000 respondents had reported losing their digital companion or having it stolen.

Group young people using mobile smartphone outdoor - Millennial generation having fun with new trends social media apps - Youth technology addicted - Red background

Source: iStock.com/Alessandro Biascioli

There are now around 3.9 billion mobile phones and smartphones worldwide. 218 billion new apps were downloaded in 2020 alone, and €125 billion  was spent in app stores worldwide for the first time. We have our phone with us all the time, wherever we go. So it’s understandable that people sometimes lose theirs. A study by the software vendor Lookout back in 2012 revealed that the main places for losing a smartphone in Germany were usually the hotel, pub or disco. It also analyzed how often users of its app utilized its locate function for their smartphone, and where the phones were located at the time of the search. Lookout tracked down a total of nine million smartphones worldwide the year before. Not much has probably changed almost 10 years on.

Searching for traces

In the summer of 2018, the insurance company Axa analyzed the cases of smartphone theft reported to it over the previous five years and published the results. The two favorite Spanish destinations Barcelona and Majorca top the list (see the table below) of the cities where people insured with Axa reported the theft of their mobile devices. Of course, it’s not possible to fathom the gray zone where smartphones are carelessly forgotten on the beach or are dropped on the ground and broken during a night on the town, yet they are still included in the theft rankings. “In particular, mobile phones are reported as stolen from popular tourism destinations, since thieves especially like mingling with the crowds there,” says Stefan Müller, Head of Property Claims at Axa. The top ten cities for smartphone theft are:

  1. Barcelona
  2. Mallorca
  3. London
  4. Berlin / Milan
  5. Munich
  6. Amsterdam
  7. Bangkok
  8. Lisbon
  9. Bali
  10. Constance / New York

Axa found that the peak times at which mobile device thieves operate are on weekends and in the summer. 40 percent of losses reported occurred on a Saturday or Sunday. Particular care needs to be taken at summer parties, festivals, open-air movie theaters and crowded swimming baths.

Stop thief!

The Mobile Theft & Loss Report 2020 by Prey Inc. discovered that smartphone owners usually have themselves to blame if they find they no longer have their device on them: They’ve simply lost it.

“You are two times more likely to lose your device than have it stolen, which makes us the biggest enemy our phones face every day. In 2019, we did not see this change. Theft has increased, but refuses to take a considerable piece of responsibility for mass device loss yet,” reads the report. We’re especially careless and thoughtless when we’re waiting for the train, in a restaurant or doing sport. A brief moment of inattention and our smartphone is gone for good. But what can you do if you reach into your pocket and suddenly discover it’s empty? If you can’t find your mobile, you should first look and see if it’s nearby. The simplest way to do that is to call it. If the sound is turned off, you can alternatively use a second device to search for the other via Bluetooth – if it is enabled on the lost one. You can do that using a laptop, a friend’s smartphone or headsets – usually up to a radius of around ten meters. If that doesn’t succeed, users should have an SMS containing contact data, such as an e-mail address, sent to the phone. That means anyone who finds it can contact the owner.

What should you do if your mobile phone is gone?

“Report the loss to the police right away. When you do so, it’s important to give the authorities the 15-digit IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) number. This number can be used to identify a mobile device,” is the advice of the German Federal Bureau of Investigation. In addition, you should immediately ask your network provider to lock stolen or lost devices, says the bureau. If the smartphone can be located, you should also give the police the location data.

Info box on the IMEI number

The IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) is a unique number that can be used to identify the mobile device. In some countries, mobile providers can also put the IMEI number of a device on an internal blacklist in addition to locking the SIM card. That means it can no longer be used to dial into their network. Every mobile phone can be identified from its 15-digit serial number, called the IMEI number. If you report your smartphone as having been stolen, the police need your device’s IMEI number. To find the IMEI number, enter the code *#06# (asterisk, hash, zero, six, hash) in the display just as if you are making a phone call. The IMEI is then shown. Jot down the number and keep it at hand. The IMEI number of some devices is also on the packaging or in the mobile phone contract.

Android users can also search for the IMEI using the Find my Device feature: When you click on the i in a circle displayed next to your smartphone, a pop-up message with the IMEI is shown.

The quickest way to find the IMEI number is to use the keypad

iPhone users can find their device’s IMEI on the website appleid.apple.com. To do that, you need to log on with the same Apple ID you use for the stolen device. Scroll down to Devices and click on your iPhone. The IMEI is then displayed. As soon as the mobile provider has blacklisted the IMEI, it’s theoretically not even possible to use the mobile device with another SIM card. This feature is available in counties such as the U.S., the United Kingdom, Turkey, Latvia and some Latin American countries.

Find my Device

Most smartphones have system settings that can be used to determine their location. Among other things, Android devices have the “Find my Device” feature for that. If you log on to the website with your Google account, you can find the device’s precise location, cause it to ring or have it locked remotely.

The following requirements must be met so that this feature can be used: The device must be switched on, you must be logged on with a Google account, the device must be connected to the Internet via the mobile network or WLAN, and the location service and the Find my Device function itself must be enabled.

You can even see the smartphone’s battery status remotely and so estimate how much time you still have left to find the device “alive.” You can also see the WLAN with which the device is currently connected. If the smartphone is nearby, you can make it ring over the Internet and find it that way, even if it’s muted.

Check the Google Maps timeline

If locating the smartphone doesn’t deliver satisfactory results, you can trace its last locations using the timeline function of Google Maps.

Depending on the setting, the current location is captured at 10-minute intervals and recorded in Google Maps. As a result, you can narrow down the places where you might have lost the smartphone. However, there is one major restriction: This trick only works if the location service on the smartphone is permanently enabled.

Lock your SIM card

If you’ve searched all your pockets, your home and the car and still haven’t found your device, you should lock its SIM card. That prevents it from being used for calls, writing SMSs or surfing in the Internet. To lock it, you simply call your mobile provider.

The numbers of the main providers are:

There is a general hotline that can also be used as an alternative to contacting your mobile provider: You can call the emergency number 116 116 to lock not only credit cards, customer cards or employee ID cards used for electronic access control, but also the SIM card if you lose your smartphone. Calls from Germany are toll-free. You can call the emergency number for a charge from abroad under +49 116 116 or +49 30 4050 405.

Deactivate mobile payment

If you lock your smartphone using the “Find my device” feature, you should also take the precaution of removing the bank card data you have stored on it.

For Android devices:

  • Log on to your Google account.
  • Click on the button “Payments & subscriptions” and then on “Manage payment methods.”
  • Remove all the cards.

Erase sensitive data

If your smartphone contains particularly sensitive data that should never fall into the hands of strangers, you should definitely remove all content using the “Erase device” function. After that, the device is automatically reset to the factory settings. Once the data has been erased, all the settings are gone, too, and you can no longer locate your lost phone. And anyone who hasn’t made regular backups of their data – well, they’re richer for the experience. So that a potential thief cannot get up to any mischief with your e-mail address, you should revoke all permissions. That can be done quickly using the app info for your account. If you lock access rights there, no messages can be received anymore. You should also change the passwords for the services you use right away. That applies in particular to services you have installed or used on your smartphone.

Preventive measures for the worst case

First of all, let’s talk about insurance. A normal home contents insurance only pays if your phone is stolen when your home is burgled or you are mugged. If you can make a claim against the insurance company, you must always report the theft (along with the IMEI number) to the police.

The German magazine Focus wrote in a recent article entitled The best smartphone insurance – Test and comparison: “When you buy a new, expensive smartphone, you should be aware that your home contents insurance does not pay for such devices when they are lost or damaged. It is one of the long list of standard insurance policies where smartphones are not covered. They also include personal liability insurance, which likewise does not pay out for stolen or broken mobile phones – and certainly not if you are to blame. It is seldom the case that the damage is caused by third parties and that person settles the damage through their liability insurance, if they have such a policy. […] Our colleagues at CHIP examined 16 offers from ten insurers and insurance intermediaries, including traditional insurance companies. However, the testers noticed that the situation changes as soon as theft is involved. Not all the tariffs include that in their catalog of benefits. Theft includes situations where your smartphone is stolen from your trouser pocket, a thief seizes your entire bag, or the device is stolen during a burglary. Only half of the tariffs in the test covered all three types of loss. The test winner Wertgarantie pays up for all of them, for example, while other tariffs do not cover all three, but just one …”

Everyone has to decide for themselves whether and when insuring their smartphone is worthwhile. The German Consumer Advice Organization has summarized the pros and cons of such insurance in an article of its own.

Our advice: You can do without smartphone insurance

In an article entitled “Schutz mit Lücken” (“Protection with Gaps”; German only), the German consumer organization Stiftung Warentest comes to the conclusion: “The benefits paid out by smartphone or tablet insurance in the event of loss or damage are modest. Think carefully whether you really need such insurance. Loss of a smartphone is usually not a threat to the owner’s financial existence. Smartphone insurance is therefore not one of the most important types of cover.”

Anti-theft apps

They say you learn from your mistakes and, to paraphrase an old adage, “after the theft is the same as before the theft.” So, if you’re clever, you take preventive action and examine just how useful an anti-theft app might be for you. You can find lots of anti-theft apps” in Play Store. Users can define a “control zone,” for example, and are then notified if their smartphone moves outside it. Or the app takes a photo with the front camera, and automatically sends it to the owner’s e-mail address, if an incorrect PIN is entered.

Graphic: https://www.welivesecurity.com/deutsch/2019/01/17/mobile-device-verlust-diebstahl/

Apart from using Google’s own Device Manager, there are other ways of finding a lost smartphone. The Avira Antivirus security program can locate your mobile device, as can the Cerberus anti-theft app. The latter offers further useful functions in addition to location services. For instance, you can still ascertain the device’s location even if a thief has replaced your SIM card. Moreover, the device PIN and other security features can be changed after a theft so as to protect your personal data on the Android device.

If you want, you can also look at what anti-virus software vendors have in their range. Kaspersky, Bitdefender, Avast, McAfee Security, AVG or Norton Security, for example, offer apps intended to enhance security on smartphones. The anti-theft functions are largely congruent with the above-mentioned free apps from Google and Apple. However, the anti-virus apps usually boast an additional feature where thieves are photographed by the stolen device’s front camera when they try to use the smartphone. This type of “mug shot” is intended to help the police trace culprits.

Phone tracking

How phone tracking works

You can obtain the information you want quickly and easily using smartphone tracking. There are two main variants of that: GPS tracking and GSM tracking. Both work in different ways, but have one thing in common: As a rule of thumb, the phone must be switched on to enable tracking. If it is not, tracking is not possible.

Can location services find lost mobile devices? The German magazine Netzwelt asked that question and has compiled the most important facts, such as what location service in the Internet can actually be recommended and how to find your phone reliably. Its verdict: “We cannot endorse any of the tested location services with complete conviction and a clear recommendation. Even in a large city like Hamburg, the radio mast density is so low that your phone can be located using the GSM network only down to an accuracy of almost 100 meters. It is unlikely that you will be able to find it in such a large radius.”

Conclusion: Since we’ve become used to having our digital companions with us all the time wherever we go, there will always be cases where mobiles and smartphones are lost or stolen. Unless you have a clever idea like the one from this story about a smartphone owner:

“The Reddit user SquirrelGang recently found a smartphone left in a bar and was so elated that he wanted to share his find with the network community right away. However, the iPhone owner was no fool, despite having drunk a lot of alcohol, and had left a message to the finder on the lock screen: “Oh no! I got drunk and lost my iPhone! Please call the number on the screen to return it! It’s my mom so you have to make up a crazy story as to why you have it.” It seems the honest finder was a little afraid of the owner’s mother and so gave the iPhone to the bar staff. Generally speaking, we find a message like that a brilliant idea for an emergency. So feel free to copy it!”

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