Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the lights on at MakeUseOf. Read more.
Bad things happen. Devices got stolen. Maybe you leave your phone on the table in the pub after you’ve had a few. Maybe a sneaky trickster like the one on the right there manages to delicately extract it from your purse. Maybe a stray horse eats it.
These things happen. But it’s up to you to prepare for them. You can’t trace your stolen phone after the fact, not easily – but you can install a few simple apps and free services to give you a good chance of recovering the device when if it does go walkies.
The choice is yours; but to make it easier, here’s a few tried and tested services.
Find My iPhone (Free, iOS only)
Not limited to the iPhone, Find My iPhone actually works on all Apple devices including computers, though obviously true geolocated accuracy can only be obtained on devices with a GPS chip. Be aware however that although the functionality is included, it is not enabled by default – so if you haven’t enabled it yet, go and do it now.
The functionality of the service is limited to:
- Geolocating your device
- Sending an alarm or message which ignores mute settings
- Locking the device
- Remotely wiping all data
You cannot take pictures or screenshots. A remote wipe precludes all the other services and should therefore only be used as a last resort. Additionally, if you device is not currently within range of an internet connection or 3G reception, the commands will be queued and executed once a connection is made – if at all.
In my experience, Find My iPhone is very reliable; the only time it wouldn’t work is if the battery has died or the mobile connection is down. It won’t help in every situation, but it’s a good first line of defence.
Prey Project (Windows, Mac, iOS & Android)
Features and exact functionality vary by OS, but the core feature set is:
- Take photos of the thief
- Take screenshots of their activity
- Lock a device or display a “stolen” message
- Automatically connect to Wi-Fi if available
- Use nearby Wi-Fi signals to provide pseudo geo-location if GPS not available
- Hardware scan (to check if, for example, just the memory has been stolen)
A pro plan for up to 10 devices costs $15 per month which, among other features, allows you to track devices all the time instead of just when reported stolen. However, there is a free plan for up to 3 devices so you can test the service easily.
On Android, devices are activated with an SMS message, which you send to your phone from anywhere. You cannot activate via the Prey control panel. Photo support is available on most devices, except for those with only a front camera (like the Nexus 7).
On an iOS device, you cannot activate by SMS. Instead, the app uses an API called “significant location change”, which means everytime your device moves far enough from a single location, the app will check in with the Prey control panel to see if it’s been marked as stolen or not. In case that doesn’t work, a fake message is pushed to the phone, and once the user slides to unlock, a photo will be taken and Prey set to active mode. In addition, if you want to take pictures of the thief, you’ll need a Pro plan. It’s also advised that you attempt to hide the application icon in a folder, else uninstallation is a trivial task.
I tested the service by reporting my phone as missing while it was off, then turning it on again to see what happened. I received a message about changing my banking PIN, and after clicking through, I saw the Prey loading screen before a long wait during which it took my picture and tried to load the Bank of America site in the background. A report was received, but the Prey app had now been placed in the foreground, so upon waking the phone I now saw the Prey login screen. I then enabled alarms and alerts from the settings screen. The alarm played even though the phone was muted, but I was able to quickly silence it with the volume keys. Addtionally, the reports can be completely ignored by just clicking the close button on the message that pops up. I’d say Prey is a pretty limited service on the iPhone, and may even alert the criminal that something is up.
The number of options for a Mac device was far more extensive, including data like running programs. I had to wait 10 minutes for the first report to come in, but then I was greeted with this ugly mug and a full screenshot. Nice.
Avast Security Suite (Android, Free)
As well as an essential set of malware scanners and app shields that are pretty much mandatory on Android, the Avast suite includes two modes of anti-theft for non-rooted and rooted devices. Operating predominantly over SMS, the app can also perform various functions if an attempt is made to change the SIM card. Over SMS, the basic feature set is:
- Locking the device
- Call forwarding
- Remote wipe
Note that some of these may only be available on a rooted device. I installed in root mode on my HTC One X running Viper but didn’t have much success. Setup was a fairly complex process involving a reboot, changing some settings, and being a bit bewildered by all the menus.
After doing everything on my phone, I then had to register a new Avast account online – which I did using Facebook – before delving back into the app to figure out why it wasn’t registering the device. I found an option to connect the app to my Avast account (which wasn’t immediately obvious or prompted when I was setting up the anti-theft), but it wanted a password with no Facebook option – which of course I didn’t have, having created the account using Facebook. And of course, trying to change the password using the online account portal means having to type in the old password, which again, doesn’t exist. I gave up at this point – sorry. This app may be highly rated, but with this much effort needed to setup tracking and some fundamental flaws in the workflow, I’m guessing they’re not rating this particular component of the suite. Avoid.
Android Lost (Free, Android only)
Android Lost does much the same as Avast, but without all the added malware protection. Oh, and it actually works.
Android Lost Jumpstart can be used if you’re having problems activating the device. What also impressed me about this app is that you can apparently install it remotely – so even if you don’t have AndroidLost currently installed or can’t do SMS, use Android Lost Jumpstart first to get the main app installed (assuming your Google account hasn’t been wiped).
The app is incredibly easy to use as it’s tied to your Google account. Just launch it on your phone, and login with your Google credentials to AndroidLost.com – I was up and running in literally about 3 taps. It also appears to install silently, with no visible icon in the app launcher – though this may require rooting.
Your Carrier, and The Police (UK only)
Ultimately, there is no way to trace a device (on your own) that has had the SIM card removed or the core system re-installed. Phones can be reported to the police and the IMEI number can be blacklisted – which may render the phone useless even on a different network – but this won’t get your device back. It’s also possible to change the IMEI, though this is also a criminal act in many countries.
In the UK, there is a free service called the National Property Register. Register your IMEI there (and all your other devices and property), and if the item is recovered then there’s a good chance it can be returned to you – the police do actively check stolen goods.
In reality, I’ve only ever had a phone stolen once, and Find My iPhone was the only protection we had on it. It worked, and we got the phone back without needing to involve the police. That said, setting up a free Prey account or two for all your devices can’t be a bad idea either; although support for iOS is limited, a household with lots of different devices would be well advised to set it up on all of them and get a pro account for peace of mind.
On the Android side of things, perhaps you would have better luck with Avast, but I found Android Lost to be a far simpler and more reliable experience by far – it’s rivals Apple’s own Find My iPhone in terms of ease of use. In summary then:
- No matter what devices you have, put Prey on them.
- If you use iOS, make sure you’ve setup Find My iPhone.
- If you use Android, get Android Lost installed now.
Do you use something else? Let us know. Has your phone ever been stolen, and did you get it back? Tell us about it.