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Stolen or lost Android phone? Here's how to get it back

Losing your phone is a stressful experience, but it doesn't have to be. Take a deep breath and use Android's built-in tools to track down your phone.

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Prepare now so you can find your lost Android phone with ease. 

Jason Cipriani/CNET

It can happen in the blink of an eye. You put your Android phone down on a counter at the checkout stand or feel a slight bump as you get off the subway, only to later realize your phone is missing. Regardless of how you lose it, be it theft or a simple mistake, losing your phone is a stressful experience.

Losing your phone cuts off your access to the rest of the world; it is likely the most personal device you own. Replacing it is a costly nuisance.

In the event your phone goes missing, don't panic! There are tools built into every Android phone that make it possible to lock and track down a lost phone with ease. But first you'll need to take some steps now to set yourself up for success if and when your phone does go missing -- even if you only left it in the house.

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Be prepared

You can take a few steps now to be ready if you lose your phone.

Create a secure lock screen

Do yourself a favor and turn on passcode and fingerprint authentication. Do yourself another favor and don't use facial recognition on your Android device. 

On most Android devices, the technology used for facial recognition can be easily tricked with something as simple as a photo of your face. Google's Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL are the exceptions here, as they use a more reliable system similar to Apple's Face ID.

Next, create your passcode and set up fingerprint authentication in the Settings app under the Security section. I realize scanning a fingerprint or entering a PIN code every time you want to use your phone can be inconvenient, but the idea of someone having access to your photos, banking apps, email and the rest of your personal info is downright scary.

An extra step to unlock your phone is worth the effort when you consider the potential impact of exposing your personal info to a stranger.   

Read more: If you lose your iPhone, immediately do these 3 things

Google's Find My Device

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Make sure Google's Find My Device is turned on. 

Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Any time you sign in to an Android device with a Google account, Find My Device is automatically turned on. Google's free Find My Device service is what you'll use should your phone ever go missing to track, remotely lock and remotely erase it. 

Check to make sure Find My Device is enabled on your Android phone by opening the Settings app and going to Security & Location > Find My Device. Alternatively, if your device doesn't have a Security & Location option, go to Google > Security > Find My Device.

Find My Device should be turned on. If not, slide the switch to the On position. 

Finally, double-check that the ability to secure and remotely erase the device is turned on by going to android.com/find on your computer, selecting your phone, and clicking Set Up Secure & Erase. A push alert will be sent to your phone -- tap it to finish the setup process. 

Samsung has two different services

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If you've signed in to your Samsung account on a Galaxy phone, you should be good to go. However, it's a good idea to double-check. 

Screenshots by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Samsung has long offered a Find My Mobile service to help Galaxy phones owners track down their lost phones. The service is separate from Google's Find My Device offering, and is something you can -- and definitely should -- set up. Not only does it give you a backup service you can use to track down a lost phone, but it also gives you tools that Find My Device doesn't have. With Samsung's service, you can do things like force remote backups or see if someone has swapped out your SIM card. You'll need to use your Samsung account to set up Find My Mobile.

However, more recently, Samsung announced a new service called SmartThings Find. The new feature works like Apple's Find My app by crowdsourcing the location of a lost device, even if it's offline, but telling nearby Galaxy devices to look for its Bluetooth signal and report its location if it's found. All of which, of course, is done anonymously.

There's no harm in using Google's offering, in addition to both of Samsung's device tracking services. Turn on Find My Mobile on your Galaxy phone in the Settings app. Next, go to Biometrics and security > Find My Mobile. If you signed in to your Samsung account during the initial device setup, the Find My Mobile should already be enabled. If not, take a few seconds to sign in and enable Find My Mobile.

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SmartThings Find will, well, help you find your device. 

Jason Cipriani/CNET

As for SmartThings Find, you'll need to have a Galaxy device running Android 8 or newer. The setup process should already be taken care of as long as you're running the latest version of the SmartThings app. I had to go into the Galaxy Store app and update it myself, but once I did that the main page of the SmartThings app had a map showing the last location of my Galaxy Buds ($60 at Best Buy), along with other Samsung devices that are linked to my account below the map. If it's not set up automatically, you may have to tap on a SmartThings Find button and follow the prompts to register your device. 

Once it's turned on, you can view the location of your device(s) by opening the SmartThings app and select SmartThings Find. When you view the device's location, there's a More Options button that will take you to Samsung's Find My Mobile service where you can then use its controls to lock down your device, remotely back it up or even erase it. 

Remotely lock and track a lost phone

And if you do misplace it, here's what to do.

Use Find My Device

Play a sound, lock your phone or erase it using the Find My Device site. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Using Android's baked-in service requires you to remember one thing: android.com/find. That website is where you'll go in the unfortunate event that you lose your phone. Make sure to sign in to the same Google account that's linked to your Android phone.

Not near a computer? You can use another Android device and the Find My Device app, which you'll have to download separately from the Play store. Immediately after you sign in to the site or app, Google will attempt to locate your phone.

An alert will be sent to your phone to tell whoever has it that it's being tracked. Use the menu on the left-hand side of the Find My Device site to play a sound (helpful if you misplaced it in your home!), lock down your device or erase the device altogether.

Selecting Secure Device will lock the phone, display a message of your choosing on the lock screen and sign out of your Google account. Don't worry, you can still locate the phone after it's locked. If you use Google Pay for mobile payments, locking your phone will prevent anyone from using your phone to make a purchase.

If you use the Erase Device feature, you will no longer be able to track the phone. Reserve this feature as a last resort.

Should the thief turn off your phone, you won't be able to track it until it's turned back on and has a cellular or Wi-Fi connection. Google will send you an email once it locates your device.

Once you find your phone, you'll need to enter your PIN or passcode to gain access. That should also get rid of the lock screen message. You might also have to log in to your Google account, just to verify it really is you accessing the phone -- you don't need to turn anything off in the Find My Device app. 

Samsung phones

Samsung's Find My Mobile has a lot of options for tracking and controlling a lost phone. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Samsung Galaxy owners have the benefit of using Google's or Samsung's respective services to locate a lost device, but I recommend using Samsung's offering. As you'll see below, the added capabilities are invaluable.

To track a lost device with Samsung's service, you need to visit findmymobile.samsung.com. There isn't a companion app, so you'll need to use a mobile browser on another phone or a computer.

Sign in with your Samsung account, then select your lost device on the left side of the screen. A map will display where your phone is currently located, and a menu of options will show up on the right side of the screen.

Start by locking the phone, which will display a personalized message on the lock screen, suspend your Samsung Pay cards and prevent the phone from being powered off.

Next, create a backup of your phone. Should you lose it for good, you'll want to have a current backup of your phone. If the phone is moving locations, use the Track location feature.

Enabling this feature will track your phone every 15 minutes. Finally, turn on the Extend battery life feature -- this will disable almost everything on the phone but the location tracking.

Similar to Google's Find My Device service, Samsung's service only requires you to enter your PIN after locating your phone. You don't need to go back to the website and turn any of the tracking features off. 

Don't confront thieves

If your phone has been stolen and you're able to track its location, do not attempt to recover it yourself. Doing so could lead to you or someone else getting hurt, and despite the importance of a phone, it's simply not worth it.

Instead, contact local law enforcement and let them know you need help recovering a lost or stolen phone that you've been able to track to a specific address.

Contact your carrier, file an insurance claim

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Contact your carrier to file an insurance claim as soon as you realize you aren't getting your phone back. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

If it becomes clear that you're never going to get your phone back, contact your carrier and report your phone as lost or stolen. Doing this will blacklist the phone from the carrier's database, preventing another person from using it.

When you call, your carrier will want to suspend your service as well. This is a good idea if you want to prevent someone from using your phone. However, keep in mind that if you're still tracking your lost phone, you'll lose a mobile connection to it -- and unless the phone is somehow registered on a Wi-Fi network, you'll lose the ability to track it.

Finally, if you pay for insurance on your phone, you'll need to file a claim and pay the deductible to get your replacement phone. Get the insurance claim process started through your carrier, who will then likely refer you to the third-party insurance company that will replace your phone.

Good luck! We hope you never have to go through the emotional roller coaster of losing a phone, tracking it down and trying to get it back.