How to Return a Lost Phone in Four Easy Steps

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Returning a locked lost phone can feel a lot like stealing one. I recently found someone’s accidentally discarded $450 smartphone. But did I break through the passcode and access the owner’s personal information, including sexts and homemade pornography? No, I didn’t access their data.

For the curious, yes, a phone’s lock pattern can be broken using a handful of tricks, including the Android Debugger, the grease trail exploit and by using a lockscreen exploit.

Every year, millions drop their mobile into the unknown. In the US, about 50% of lost devices are returned to their owners. The rest get resold or reused – while thievery may seem eco-friendly and ego-friendly, it’s horrifyingly unfriendly to the original owner. Instead of opening yourself up to lawsuits or committing felonies, return it. Mobiles contain family pictures, personal information and more that exceed the physical value of the phone.

But how does one return a phone to its owner?

Easy – if the phone doesn’t use a locking pattern, just open up the contacts list and find a family member. However, a locking pattern complicates things, since you need to unlock the phone to access the contacts list. Even locked, you can still return the device without much hassle. Here’s how I found a phone and successfully returned it quickly.

opened phone case

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Background: The Study on Lost Phones

Symantec performed a study on phone theft. They randomly dispersed 50 phones within the Los Angeles area, without a lock-screen pattern. Roughly 50% of these phones made their way back to Symantec. Of these, 96% had been accessed for personal details, such as photos, emails and more.

The moral of the story: Enable the password or screen lock.

However, phones using a locking pattern can easily be hacked to reveal your private data. It can also interfere with attempts to return the phone.

When it comes down to it, there are two paths of returning the phone that are contingent upon whether or not you have access to the Internet Mobile Station Equipment Identity, or IMEI, number. The IMEI number can unique identify the owner of the phone.

Method #1: Returning a Lost Phone with an IMEI Number

If the phone is unlocked, you can simply pop open the contacts list and dial someone, like a family member. However, if the phone’s owner locked it, you’ll need to engage in slightly more leg work. In my case, the phone’s lock pattern was enabled and traditional bypass methods wouldn’t work — the telltale finger smudges on the screen had been wiped out by tire tracks. After the phone had been dropped, it unfortunately fell beneath the owner’s car.

OtterBox makes amazing protective cases, by the way.

tire tracks

Acquiring the IMEI (the serial number works too) of the phone depends on the phone’s by make. In the Samsung Galaxy S3 that I picked up, the IMEI number can be found underneath the battery. This isn’t the case on all phones, unfortunately.

battery

After jotting down the IMEI, I called the cellular service provider: AT&T. Unfortunately they could not give me any personal info. I asked that the carrier forward along a message to the owner of the phone — the phone was left with my apartment complex’s main office. Within a few hours the owner picked the device up, without issue.

This method works because the phone’s owner must contact the cellular provider to suspend service. However, if you manage to contact the phone company before the customer realizes his loss, they can then relay your contact information to them.

In my case, the Galaxy S3 didn’t receive cellular signal from with my two-story living building. So waiting until the owner called wasn’t an option.

Here’s the basic process that you may need to go through to return a phone, if you have an IMEI:

  1. Write down the IMEI and/or the serial number. Manufacturers sometimes place this underneath the battery, on the side of the device or on the back.
  2. Call the service provider and supply them with the requisite information, normally the IMEI.
  3. Leave a contact number with the service provider.
  4. When the owner calls to suspend service, they will receive the contact number.

It’s not that hard. It’s actually a lot easier than actually keeping the phone.

Returning the Phone Without an IMEI Number

In the event the IMEI isn’t available and the phone is locked, you can either wait until the owner calls his own phone or you can take matters into your own hands.

For a GSM (AT&T and T-Mobile) phone, a phone thief would simply swap out the SIM card and either sell or use the device. The Galaxy S3 in my possession sells for about $400. Beating the lockscreen would only require attaching the phone to a PC or using an exploit. If they didn’t want to access the personal data, they could perform a factory reset using ADB – Android Debug.

Method #2: The Android Debug Method

The Android Debug method (ADB) exploit method can break a phone’s lock pattern. This method requires that you have ADB on your PC. Also, the device must connect via USB to your PC with ADB installed. If properly configured, you alter the phone’s gestures.key file — a serious security problem with Android. The phone will flip back out of locked mode and you can then access the contacts list. Thieves at this point will simply factory reset the device. Don’t do that.

Method #3: The Finger Smudge Method

The oldest, and best known, method of beating the lockscreen pattern is through tracing finger smudges. Holding the phone up to light will reveal such patterns and you can retrace the lines on the screen to beat the lock pattern. You can read about it here.

Method #4: Operating System Exploit

You can also attempt one of many lockscreen exploits that exist in different versions of Android. Many of these go unpatched, so it’s just a matter of finding the right method. Googling the name of the phone and “pattern unlock” may find you the answer you’re looking for.

This is the method that would have let me access the Galaxy S3 formerly in my possession:

I should reemphasize that this method wasn’t needed.

Conclusion

If you find a lost phone, returning it is easy. If you have the IMEI number, simply contact the cellular service provider and leave your contact info with them. If you don’t have the IMEI, either wait until they call their own phone or you can attempt to bypass the lock pattern.

For those of you looking to recover a stolen device, there’s a variety of methods. Some older strategies revolve around installing software. However, the newer Android Device Manager lets you locate a stolen device without actually installing anything.

Returning the phone clears your conscience and gives good karma. Anyone else love returning people’s lost property? Let us know in the comments.

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