How to Return a Lost Phone in Four Easy Steps

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   How to Return a Lost Phone in Four Easy Steps

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   How to Return a Lost Phone in Four Easy Steps

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   How to Return a Lost Phone in Four Easy Steps

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.

The comments were closed because the article is more than 180 days old.

If you have any questions related to what's mentioned in the article or need help with any computer issue, ask it on MakeUseOf Answers—We and our community will be more than happy to help.

27 Comments -

android underground

“Method #2: The Android Debug Method […] “serious security problem”

USB debugging is switched off by default on stock ROMs, so this “serious security problem” only exists if the owner chose to go into the settings to take the locks off.

Arthur C

I was unaware of the different methods. Intriguing and disconcerting.
Thank you for the article.

Anthony

This article is slanted towards an Android phone, but what if the phone is an iPhone? If it’s locked?

Paul

iPhones don’t usually get returned ;-)

matesimo

ever

Anonymous

How please

Anonymous

Like to handover to the owner no Q but respect how do I find them honest help

Anthony

Yeah… that didn’t really answer my question, but thanks for playing…

Kannon Y

Unfortunately, I can’t respond to the anonymous poster, but returning an Apple phone is slightly more difficult, as the IMEI isn’t easily accessible on some devices.

http://support.apple.com/kb/ht4061

For the iPhone 5, it’s easy as the IMEI is engraved on the case. Once you have the IMEI, call the carrier (usually AT&T, but it’s on all networks now) and let them know you’ve recovered the phone and request return instructions or leave return instructions (such as I did in my article).

For the iPhone 4, you need to eject the SIM card. This may require a needle or a paperclip. BE VERY CAREFUL. Make sure you hit the metal ejection lever with the pin. A paperclip actually might be too wide to fit in the SIM card ejection hole.

Look around the sides of the phone. You’ll see a subtle outline where the SIM card tray is located.

Once ejected, the IMEI is noticeable on the exterior of the SIM card tray.

Thank you Anthony, for returning someone’s phone. Good luck! And please let me know if you have any additional questions.

Randy B

If it’s not a prepaid phone you should be able to take it to whichever carriers corporate store and they can contact the owner.

Alex

Did you not recieve a reward? I would certainly hope you did recieve a reward for a $400 dollar phone.

Kannon Y

The reward was intrinsic. :-)

Pooky J

And anything about Windows Phone?

Erwin D

A lot easier for Android users: make sure you set the owner information on your phone before losing it :)

Settings > Security > Owner Information: this information will be shown on the lock screen, so give your name and the phone number of a family member, friend or your land line, or give an e-mail address! It really is as easy as that.

Don McMahan

That way they can find out where you live and go burglarize your house while you are out looking for your phone.

Erwin D

Did I somewhere tell you to give your home address? I tried it for my name and phone number… you cannot find my home address with that information and if you are really paranoid, you can always just give your first name only, and the phone number of a friend or family member or an e-mail address that is not that easily traceable to you :-)

Nash J

I once found $3000 in an envelope, no ID, no anything. Just the money. I thought about spending it but I didnt. I had it for a week. Then I heard that my landlord at the time had lost some money. I gave it to my father and he inquired and it was the guys money. My father still gets tons of free stuff from the dude.

Virginia V.

Another option is to make an emergency call with the phone, which appears below the number pad on the locked screen. It will probably connect you with someone who knows the owner of the phone well.

Melissa

Virginia – I always thought this would just auto-dial 911. There’s a way to set the emergency # to something else?

Czadd

Method #5: Hold on to the phone until someone calls

I found a new iPhone at an airport and, rather than trust the airport personnel with it, I brought it home with me. When someone called, I explained the situation and was put in touch with the owner. Then I shipped it back to him.

Much simpler than some of these other methods.

Tina S

Glad I saw this! Was going to write a similar story after finding an iPhone, yesterday. I was lucky, the owner had not even set a lock screen. He got a call about someone trying to return his lost phone before he even noticed it was missing. :)

Kannon Y

Well done! He is very lucky that you found it instead of someone else. Apple Picking is super common nowadays.

Coen

Interesting article! Sometimes it can be hard to trace the owner. If the owner not is calling, battery is empty or you just can enter the found phone. In most cases the operators simply don’t know which IMEI number is linked to which user. Also the police is not taking any action when phones are missing, except for writing down the IMEI numbers in case someone brings in the phone.

In the Netherlands and Belgium we have a central IMEI database (www.telefooncheck.nu and http://www.telefooncheck.be) to bring owner and founder in concact or to report that your phone is missing or stolen. Everyone can report an IMEI number. It is a very powerfull tool to check if a second hand phone is stolen before you buy it on Ebay-like sites. In the future this database will be extended with serveral new services to protect your mobile phone and will be called MobiMY .

In the Netherlands ImeiXS (www.imeixs.com) has developed these services called MobiMY that can block every phone in all networks to make stolen phones useless. You can register your own IMEI numbers and block them any time so that no one can use your phone on one of the networks. Besides blocking it is possible to remote locate, wipe, message, block SIM and send messages to a mobile device, even if the device has no data connection, only a network connection. Because of this combination you can keep your phone and information safe against thiefs and make it useless to them!

Coen
ImeiXS

Randy W.

Found a Galaxy Note II today at the park after a soccer game. I looked at recent calls list, saw a phone number and person that was listed many times, called it. Amazingly it was his good friend’s phone and the friend was just 20 feet away from me at a local bakery that I drove too. It made me curious as to how I would have returned it, if it was locked (which it wasn’t).

I wondered if I should unlock my iPhone 5…

Clare

Wondered if you can help. Son had phone (phone 1) stolen in France, reported it to phone company, they supplied new phone (no 2) & new SIM, after 7 days it stopped working, rang phone company who sent courier to collect phone 2 and replace with phone 3. Four weeks later debited £480 from bank saying that we had returned phone 1 as faulty and thus we had phone 2 in our possession and we had been fraudulent. Many phone calls and emails now going to county court they “saying that they can prove that we had been fraudulent”. This has now been going on 9 months, we don’t believe our son has done anything wrong and the phone company says that their systems cannot be challenged,!!! IMEI numbers have been read and that’s it!!! Can anybody give any advice what to ask phone company or how to challenge them it seems to be a David & Goliath situation….. thank you

Kannon Y

I’m sorry for your troubles. I’m not an expert on foreign phone or legal systems, but you might wish to pose the question here:

http://www.makeuseof.com/answers/ask/

They are more than willing to quickly answer your question.

Good luck!

Gordon

My phone can find me @LostFoundOkoban