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They say that iPhones are the number one target for thieves and pickpockets everywhere. They are valuable and easy to sell on to unsuspecting victims. So Apple took moves to make the iPhone less desirable, including features such as Activation Lock, remote wiping and the locator app Find My iPhone.
But this doesn’t mean you should take matters into your own hands if you find out where your phone went. As 18-year-old Jeremy Cook discovered, the thief could be an extremely violent man with a gun. Cook was shot to death as he tried to get his stolen smartphone back.
So what do you do when your phone goes walkies? Do you take a proactive approach or wait for law enforcement to do its thing? Let’s discuss.
First Things First… Breathe
When you discover your phone is gone, you are either going to be furious, upset, or both. That’s normal — after all, you’ve just been robbed. But that is also a very dangerous combination to be in. Because in that state, you’re not thinking clearly, and your judgment is skewed. Before you know it, you could be doing something you very much regret later.
So to start with — stop. Breathe and put things into perspective.
Make Sure You Haven’t Simply Misplaced it
Find My iPhone is more geared towards finding your phone if you have misplaced it, not had it stolen. So if you are sitting in your living room, and you suddenly can’t find your phone, you can use Find My iPhone to do two things.
One, confirm the device is actually in your home, and secondly, you can get the phone to make a loud sonar-style sound. Then you can follow the noise and hopefully find the phone. You can do this from another iDevice (if you have one), or from iCloud online.
Don’t be Tempted to Recover a Stolen iPhone Alone
Find My iPhone has a feature which presents you with a little car icon. If you press on that, it will give you exact driving and walking instructions on Apple Maps, to the residence where the phone is currently located. This might tempt you into getting the phone back and roughing up the scoundrel who took it. But that would be a very bad idea. Look what happened to Jeremy Cook.
There are cases where people have successfully got their phone back. One example is our own staff member James, whose wife’s iPhone went missing. He made it known via the phone that he was able to track them down (“I have a very particular set of skills”), and they had one chance to return the phone before the rains of Hell rained down on them. The next day, his wife got the phone back.
Another example is Los Angeles resident Sarah Maguire, who traced the iPhone (and her roommate’s iPhone which was also stolen by the same person), and she marched right up to the front door to get them back. And she did.
But that approach was sharply criticised by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who told New York Times :
“This is a new phenomenon — it’s not simply running after the person to grab the phone. It opens up the opportunity for people to take the law into their own hands, and they can get themselves into really deep water if they go to a location where they shouldn’t go”.
“Some have been successful” Mr. Gascón said. “Others have gotten hurt”.
Go To The Police
The best thing to do is walk into your local police station, show them on an iDevice or iCloud online where your phone is, and ask for officers to go to the residence in question and get your phone. The police are best trained to deal with these situations in a safer manner than being a lone hero.
But before going to the police, make sure you use the locking feature in Find My iPhone. Marking it as lost — and locking the phone — will allow you to enter a phone number where you can be reached, and a personal message if a kind soul is honest enough to return it to you (or a more ominous message, as James chose to do).
If you don’t have a passcode on the phone already, then you will set one up here. The phone will remain locked and unusable until you enter your passcode and password to unlock it again. Act as quick as possible if you do find your device with Find My iPhone, as once the device has been turned off it is no longer traceable.
Can Police Actually Help?
That is impossible to answer definitively. Some police departments are busier than others. If you walked into the NYPD for example, you may get told that a missing phone is extremely low priority given the available resources. If your local police department doesn’t see much action then you may have more luck.
It can also depend on whether that particular police department is tech-savvy. If they’re not that tech savvy, then you should try and explain as best as possible the nature of the situation and how the phone won’t necessarily be traceable once the battery or data connection dies — they may be more likely to act if they know this.
If It Becomes Impossible To Get The Phone Back….
It may be that it eventually becomes impossible to get your phone back for various reasons. Perhaps the police decline to get involved? Perhaps the criminal has already sold it on? Perhaps you’ve searched high and low and still can’t find it? In these scenarios, it’s time to remotely wipe the phone.
You should ideally be backing up your iPhone on a regular basis, so wiping the phone would only be a minor inconvenience. Just follow the instructions in Find My iPhone, and assuming you have your iCloud or iTunes backup, you can easily restore everything again when you get the phone back.
Preemptive Measures You Can take
When getting an iPhone, there are some preemptive measures you can put in place in case your phone does get stolen sometime in the future. There’s nothing like being prepared.
Put On a Passcode
Imagine if your phone didn’t have a passcode and the thief started looking through your stuff. Just think for a moment what they would have access to. Your emails, your contacts, your Facebook conversations (perhaps revealing private information), Apple or Google Maps which has your address programmed in (leading the thief to come and try their luck again), photos, videos, a password manager with passwords to all your accounts …it’s enough to give me the chills.
So do yourself a huge favor and set up a passcode. Yes it’s a royal pain constantly logging in when you need to see your phone. But think of the alternative. Which one would you prefer? Head to Settings > Touch ID & Passcode to set it up, and turn Simple Passcode off if you’re really concerned.
Consider Disabling Lock Screen Notifications
So someone gets a hold of your phone, and even though the phone is locked, notifications are still coming up on the screen. SMS messages (which can be replied to, impersonating you) and email previews are two which instantly spring to mind. Do you want the thief being able to read those, despite the passcode? Consider switching it off then.
Disable Control Center, Passbook, & Siri On Lock Screen
The Control Center is the area at the bottom of the screen which you flip upwards with your finger. It has the brightness slider, volume slider, buttons for wifi, Bluetooth, and others. It also has the camera and Airdrop. Again, not exactly desirable functions you want a thief to get to, is it?
Similarly, you can and should also turn off access to the Passbook and Siri from the lock screen. It can all be done in the Passcode section in Settings.
Turn On Find My iPhone
Of course, the chances of finding your phone are far lesser if you don’t have Find My iPhone on. These days the feature doubles as Activation Lock, which stops any would-be thieves from erasing your iPhone (via iTunes) without first requiring your password. So essentially all the thief has is an expensive paperweight, another reason you should always fully inspect any second-hand iPhone you’re offered.
Turn On “Erase Data After 10 Failed Passcode Attempts”
This is a very handy feature to have on. By giving the person only 10 attempts to get the passcode right before the information explodes, it stops brute force attacks, and gives you peace of mind that your information is more or less secure.
Of course two things to bear in mind. First, make sure that you don’t get your own passcode wrong 10 times, and secondly…
…Make Sure You Back Up To iCloud or iTunes Every Day
This has to be done religiously. If your iPhone does pull the pin and nuke all of your stuff, you will lose it all forever if it isn’t backed up on iCloud. Backing up is important. It doesn’t take long if you do it on iTunes, and you can leave it running in the background, while you multi-task, looking for cat pictures, and YouTube videos of laughing babies.
The Moral Of The Story
But the moral of this story is this – and listen up good boys and girls. It is not worth getting killed over a phone. The phone can be replaced but you can’t. So don’t be tempted to be a superhero. Your iPhone doesn’t need a Dark Knight. It needs its owner alive and well to receive it back.
Have you had your iPhone stolen? If so, tell us your stories and whether or not you got your device back eventually.