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

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.

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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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Comments (33)
  • Craig Hogan

    This is overly complicated. Just figure out which carrier and return it to the store. They’ll take care of it.

  • Chris

    Can anyone help me with this?
    Two weeks ago I found a pristine 8gb iPhone 4s lying on the pavement.
    Despite all my efforts I cannot trace the owner.
    I asked at a nearby property and no-one has come forward and I left contact details in case anyone does.
    The phone was locked, so a friend of mine who knows about such things (I don’t as I have never owned a smartphone) helped me bypass the lock by syncing the phone to itunes and restoring it – but this erased all the content in the phone.
    No-one has called the phone in the two weeks that I have had it.
    It didn’t have a SIM in it, so I have had to add one of my own, so I can’t call the carrier and enquire that way and the phone is not locked onto any provider/carrier.
    My friend checked on the web and said that the IMEI number has not been registered so the phone is not blacklisted, and that also means that I can’t use the IMEI number to find the owner.
    The phone also does not seem to have been linked to any web stuff, like iCloud or Find My Phone.
    My friend says that I’m the luckiest guy because the phone’s owner did not take any precautions and therefore it is impossible for me to trace the owner and that I should claim the phone as mine.
    He said that I could take the phone to an Apple store, but they would just take the phone from me, and even if they could not trace the owner they would not return the phone to me, so I shouldn’t do that.
    I really want to find the owner – but how?

    • Kannon Y

      It almost sounds as if the owner wanted to lose the phone. Pulling the SIM card reduces the phone to little more than a tiny tablet or personal organizer. Chances are that this person either did not have a lot of money or they had too much money.

      Unfortunately, because the phone was reset using iTunes, that means all the identifying information on the device has been destroyed. You could attempt to recover it using recovery software, but I don’t advise that particular option.

      I think there are bypass methods available for breaking through an iPhone’s lock. But keep in mind that I’m uncertain as to the legality of breaking a passcode, even if for altruistic reasons.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mHq3gM7WvEY

      Unfortunately, the phone has been reset.

      Actually, it would be impossible to call the phone because it didn’t have a SIM card, unless the user was using it for Skype calls (which is a strong possibility).

      At this point, the only real option might be to report the IMEI to whatever company was the original carrier for the phone and ask them to let the owner know where the phone can be located. They likely don’t have service anymore, although they may have since upgraded to the newest model of iPhone and gave the iPhone 4 away. I guess you could also put up flyers around town, but that would be going overboard.

      I’m sorry that you are left with this burden. Apple picking is so common no one who loses their phone expects to get it back. Particularly if it’s in good condition. They probably just wrote the phone off as stolen.

  • Samaritan

    I tried to return a galaxy s5 to Sprint and was disconnected twice by a live rep. On the phone… When I got to a Sprint Store at the local mall, I was told to bring the phone to the local head office of Sprint. I am about to give up doing a good deed..

    • Samaritan 2

      I am going through a similar situation with AT&T. My son bought a phone from a guy off of Craigslist. When he went to activate it at AT&T, it was reported lost or stolen. We have contacted AT&T several different ways to have them contact owner to give them our contact information, and they refuse. Shame on AT&T.

  • Gordon

    My phone can find me @LostFoundOkoban

  • 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

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For more details, please read our disclosure.
Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.