How to Recover a Lost Phone, Tablet, or Laptop

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More Preventive Protection

Label your device: If you’re feeling optimistic that your gadget will fall into the hands of a person with a conscience, you can use a service such as BoomerangIt or StuffBak. With both services, you attach a coded label to your device; the label encourages anyone who finds the gear to go to the BoomerangIt or StuffBak website and follow the instructions to report the recovered item. You can also stipulate a monetary reward on the label, which should improve the odds that the finder will do the right thing.

Back up your phone or tablet data frequently: If you’re using some flavor of Android, remember that Google backs up most of the basic phone and tablet data (contact lists, email messages, app purchases) and stores it online for you. Focus on backing up photos, videos, and any documents or files you may have downloaded; those items generally aren’t synced to Google’s servers, so it’s up to you to keep regular backups.

MyBackup Pro for Android saves backups to an SD Card or online.
A good app for safeguarding your entire device is MyBackup Pro ($5), which backs up every file on your gadget and saves it to your SD Card or to an online storage service. If you save the backup data to an SD Card, make sure to keep the card in a safe place, and don’t use it as your primary storage. That way, if your device disappears forever, you can just plug the SD Card into your new gadget and restore all of your lost information.

iOS owners have it slightly easier. Every time you sync your iPhone or iPad to iTunes, you create a backup of your device on your computer. The backups contain all of your app data, as well as your settings, pictures, music, movies, and books. Restoring an iDevice is as easy as plugging it in and selecting Restore. iOS 5, which Apple had not yet released as we went to press with this issue, should automatically sync your phone or tablet via iCloud, Apple’s upcoming personal online storage service. Until iCloud arrives, you will have to sync your data manually.

Recovering a Lost Gadget

If the worst does happen and you lose your phone, tablet, or laptop, don’t panic. Just take a deep breath, and then follow these steps to hunt it down and protect yourself.

Change all of your passwords: This is the very first thing you should do after losing any device containing valuable data. Start with your email password--once thieves have access to your email, they can easily break into all of your other online accounts by resetting your various website passwords.

While you’re at it, now might be a good time to revisit your approach to passwords, making them stronger--and easier to remember in the process. Want help? See PCWorld’s tips for building better passwords.

File a police report: Once you have changed your account passwords, file a police report for your missing tech. Be sure to mention any identifying features (say, engravings or other customizations), as they will help other people recognize your device. You might also want to alert any local pawnshops in case someone tries to sell it for a quick buck, though this step may be time-consuming.

Track your gadget: If you have in­­stalled recovery software on your gear, activate it and use it to gauge your device’s location. For most tracking products, this means logging on at the service’s website and tracking your wayward gadget via the control panel. At this point, it’s entirely up to you whether to pursue your device or just give it up for lost and wipe it remotely.

On iOS, a remote wipe will erase all content on the device. Wiping an Android phone or tablet will clear most of the user data, but SD Cards and other pieces of external media will remain untouched; keep that in mind if you store a lot of critical information on your SD Card.

Lookout's Plan B, on the Web version of the Android Market, offers a last-ditch option.
Turn to Plan B: What if you didn’t install any recovery software? Are you out of luck? If it’s an iOS device, probably yes. But Android users can still take action. Thanks to the Web-based Android Market, you can remotely install recovery software to your phone or tablet, even if it is no longer in your possession. For instance, in addition to its mobile security suite, Lookout offers the aptly named Plan B. You remotely install the app through the Web-based Android Market, and it begins to run automatically, sending email messages to your Gmail account with a map showing where your equipment is. Don’t rely on this app alone, though: Consider Plan B only as a last resort, rather than as your primary or sole line of defense.

Starting Over With a New Phone or Laptop

Let’s say that despite following our suggestions, you’ve lost your valuable mobile tech and you’re resigned to the fact that the device will never come back to you. Yes, it’s time to start from scratch. Fortunately, securing a new laptop, tablet, or smartphone will be a relatively quick and painless affair. But even before you begin to set up your new device and install any of the apps we recommend elsewhere in this article, consider taking two actions.

Contact your carrier: If your missing phone, tablet, or laptop used a SIM card, make sure that your wireless carrier has deactivated or locked it. That move will prevent other people from simply pulling the SIM card out of your locked device, inserting it into their own, and then shamelessly racking up charges to your account. This tip also applies to LTE (4G) phones on Verizon, as well as to so-called world phones (handsets that work outside the United States), since they also carry SIM cards. Be sure to explain to your carrier that your device was stolen; it may be helpful to bring along a copy of the police report you filed, in case you need to dispute any charges.

Keep an eye on your financial statements: If evildoers succeeded in rummaging through your data before you could wipe or lock your device, they may have snagged some of your personal financial information. If you did any online banking or shopping on the lost device, change the passwords for those accounts immediately. Check your credit reports by visiting, and be ready to put out a fraud alert at the first signs of trouble. You might also wish to cancel any credit cards that you used on the device, as they may have been compromised.

So get to it! Something as simple as downloading and installing a basic security program or locking your laptop doesn’t take much effort. And you never know: A ten-dollar app could end up saving you thousands in the long run.

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