How to lock down and find Android and Windows phones

Enable screen lock in Android and Windows phones; sign up for "find my phone" and a remote-erase option at the Windows Phone site or by using an Android app such as Lookout.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
6 min read

Thieves love smartphones. They're easy to snatch, easy to conceal, and most importantly, easy to resell.

If you're the victim of a smartphone robbery, you have more to lose than the phone itself. The thief may attempt to use or sell the personal data stored on the device to make fraudulent purchases or otherwise steal your identity -- and maybe empty your bank account.

There are two things every smartphone user should do to minimize the damage resulting from loss of the device: lock the screen and activate a remote-location and remote-wipe service.

In a post from earlier this month I explained how to enable the passcode on iPhones and iPads, as well as how to use the free Find My iPhone app to locate and erase a lost or stolen iPhone or iPad.

Another post written back in August 2011 described how to replace the passcode with a stronger password, how to apply passcodes to specific iPhone and iPad apps, and three other ways to keep your iPhone and iPad data safe.

Of course, Apple isn't the only company making smartphones, although you wouldn't know it from all the press the company has been getting lately. In fact, Android phones have several options for preventing unauthorized access, including face and voice recognition.

In addition to access controls, Windows phones offer the free Find My Phone service built in; you simply have to register with a Hotmail address to activate the feature, which locates your phone via the Windows phone site and offers the option to ring, lock, or erase the device remotely.

Hands-free access control on an Android phone falls flat
Perhaps it's my homely mug, but when I tried Android's Face Unlock feature on a Samsung Galaxy S3, the camera wasn't able to recognize me, so the phone reverted to prompting me for a passcode. Speaking a prerecorded six-syllable phrase to unlock the phone likewise failed multiple times.

Ultimately I wasn't bothered by my inability to unlock the phone via the device's camera and microphone because its Pattern option works as quickly and is claimed to be more secure than face and voice unlock. Simply swipe the three-by-three-dot grid in the pattern you preselected to unlock the phone.

Android Pattern grid
Unlock your Android phone by using the Pattern feature to swipe the three-by-three-dot grid in the order you set previously. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

Pattern shows green dots when you're on target and red dots when the pattern you're swiping doesn't match. You can hide the pattern by unchecking the "Make pattern visible" option in the phone's Security settings.

Among the lock screen options is "Help text," which lets you add comments to the lock screen. I used this option to add my e-mail address in hopes that an honest person who found the phone would be able to contact me without having to unlock the phone.

Adding contact information to the lock screen of an iPhone requires taking a photo of the information and then using the photo as the screen's wallpaper, as I described in my post earlier this month. The Android approach is far more elegant and straightforward, to say the least.

You can also display news, weather, and other ticker information on the lock screen; additional access settings let you open the camera and set various wake-up commands (I didn't test the wake-up options).

Passcode-protect a Windows phone
To enable the screen lock on a Windows phone, open the Settings options and choose "lock+wallpaper." Select one of the four presets for the screen time-out period: 30 seconds, 1 minute, 3 minutes, or 5 minutes. Press the bar to the right of Password to turn it on, enter your numeric passcode twice, and press done.

To change the time after which a password is required, press the bar at the bottom of the "lock+wallpaper" settings and choose one of the seven options: "each time" or one of six periods ranging from 30 seconds to 30 minutes.

I wasn't able to find a way to customize the Windows phone's lock screen to add contact information other than to use the phone's camera to take a photo of the information written on paper and then use the image as the phone's wallpaper.

Lookout app locates your Android phone for free, charges for remote locks and data wipes
The lack of a "find my phone" feature built into Android phones has led to a cottage industry of apps that promise to locate a lost or stolen device. The one I tried is Lookout, which finds your phone for free but charges to remotely lock or wipe the device.

(For procrastinators, Lookout also offers the Plan B app that can be installed remotely, so it can be used to find a phone you lost previously.)

Lookout has many other security features, including malware protection, fraud detection and prevention, and data backup; I tested only the free location and "scream" functions. The service's safe browsing, "advanced privacy protection," remote lock and wipe, and "enhanced backup" cost $3 a month or $30 a year.

When you open Lookout's Missing Device feature you're prompted to sign into an existing account or create a new account.

Lookout missing phone screen
Create a Lookout account on the Android phone to use the free "find my phone" and "scream" features on Lookout.com. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

After you register, sign into your account at mylookout.com to open your dashboard, which has tabs labeled Security, Backup, Missing Device, and Settings. Under Missing Device are the Locate and Scream options; the Lock and Wipe options are available only with a premium account.

It took only about 15 seconds for the service to show the phone's location on a Google map. Under the map is a history of your previous find requests. The map and location information are sent to the e-mail address you used to register for the service. You can disable e-mail alerts in the Settings window.

Lookout Mobile Missing Device screen
Lookout's Missing Device feature shows the location of your Android phone on a Google map via your account at mylookout.com. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

When you click Scream you're prompted to choose one of a half dozen sounds to play on the phone. Your selected sound effect then plays at the phone's loudest volume for about one minute, and the screen flashes black and white. Click the Stop Screaming button to deactivate the alarm.

Lookout backs up only the phone's contacts by default; to back up the device's photos and call information, click Settings and check each option under Backup. You can also delete your Lookout history by unchecking that option under Settings.

Locate a lost Windows phone and lock or wipe it remotely
To activate the find-my-phone and remote-lock/wipe features on a Windows phone, create a Windows Live account on the phone, then open a browser on a PC and sign into the account at windowsphone.com. After you sign in, click Find My Phone on the drop-down menu in the upper-right corner.

The phone's location is shown on a zoomable map, along with basic location information (the name of the city when I tested it) and options for ringing, locking, and erasing the phone.

Windowsphone.com's find-my-phone results
Map the location of your Windows phone by signing into a Hotmail account at windowsphone.com and clicking the Find My Phone option. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The only two "find my phone" options on the Windows phone are to connect to the find, ring, lock, and erase features faster; and to save your location every few hours to improve mapping. Both settings are checked by default. You're warned that the first option may use more battery.

No matter which type of smartphone you use, location-based services such as find my phone require that the device is broadcasting its location, usually through a combination of GPS, cell-network tracking, and perhaps even Wi-Fi network and IP address. If the phone is off or the battery is dead, the find and other remote services won't work.