How I saved my butt after losing my phone

I spent a day tracking down my lost phone, "screaming" at whoever found it and realizing that I'm kind of lost without it.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
6 min read
Lookout allowed me to locate my missing phone on a map and to emit a loud "scream" from the device. Screenshot by Elinor Mills/CNET

A few days ago the unthinkable happened: I lost my smartphone and truly realized how lost I am without it.

I know it's not the end of the world and it happens every day to people. But it has never happened to me, and I was shocked at how helpless and vulnerable I felt. And how angry. One minute it was in my lap in the car, and the next it was gone forever.

Fortunately, I had the screen locked and my data backed up. But if that hadn't been the case, it could have been a disaster. Anyone who picked it up would have been able to read my personal and work e-mails and text messages, see my photos and get to all my contacts. I could have lost many photos that I've been too lazy to download to my computer. And someone could have run up charges calling premium sex-line numbers or something. Not good!

Instead, my story has a happy ending, and I even got to torment whoever found the phone and wasn't answering my calls or trying to return it to me. Not every story ends so well, though. Here's what happened to me and some tips on what to do if you find that your phone has gone missing.

Track and scream
The last time I saw my HTC Evo in its shiny red case was while it was plugged into my car charging. I remember unplugging it to take it with me as I stepped out of the car and entered my home. A short while later I went to use it and couldn't find it in the apartment anywhere, in the car or on the street or sidewalk where the car was. I sent a friend a chat message via Gmail asking him to call my number and didn't hear it ring.

At first I panicked. But then I remembered that I had recently started locking the screen and that I use a security service from Lookout, which offers anti-malware, remote location and alarm, backup and contact restoration as part of a free service for Android, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices. But I use the paid service, which includes remote lock and wipe, as well as other features.

I logged into my Lookout account and was able to locate my missing phone on a map using data from GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites and cell towers. I saw that the phone had traveled six blocks away and was stationary on my very street. I rang and rang but no one was answering--the first sign that I wasn't likely to ever get it back. I then remotely locked the phone so no one could access the data if they somehow managed to get past the screen lock.

If I had a spycam app installed I could have gotten a glimpse of whoever had the phone, just like this MacBook owner who was able to remotely take photos of the person who he believed stole his laptop. But alas, my phone had no hidden camera app.

I might not have been able to snoop, but I had the ability to harass. Lookout's premium service includes the ability to remotely trigger a siren on the phone, called the "scream" feature. I've heard it before and it's an awful experience--an incredibly high-pitched sound that lasts for about a minute. I made the phone scream a few times, mostly to draw attention to it so someone would answer it. But I cannot lie--I took a perverse pleasure in being annoying. I also checked lost-and-found listings on Craigslist and posted an ad about my lost phone, but nothing came of that.

With the realization dawning on me that I wasn't going to get the phone back, I toyed with the idea of hitting the scream button punitively at intervals through out the night but decided against it primarily to avoid affecting innocent bystanders.

If I had been thinking clearly I would have planted myself outside the building where the phone was pinpointed on the map (Lookout is accurate to within about 24 feet). I could have used a friend's phone to log into my Lookout account and then make my phone scream. But it was late by the time I thought of that and by the next day the phone's battery was dead, making any more tracking or screaming impossible.

Silent and untethered
Going without a phone, even for a mere 24 hours, was tough. I don't have a landline anymore so my cell phone is my main link to the world. And with some friends I text more than talk on the phone because of reception issues with their iPhones on AT&T.

I found myself instinctively reaching for my phone to check for texts, e-mails, and Facebook and Twitter posts. Gone were my trusty travel watch and alarm, as well as a way to take quick snapshots without lugging my camera around. I wondered who might be calling and leaving me important messages. I felt oddly cut off from the rest of the world when I roamed the streets away from my office phone and my laptops. I was reminded of people who go on Vipasana meditation retreats and don't speak or use technology for a week at a time--something that doesn't appeal to me in the slightest.

On Monday, I went to the Sprint store to get a new phone and bought the most affordable Android they had--the LG Optimus S. Already I like it better than the much more expensive HTC Evo I had. It's smaller, lighter, has better battery life, and I like the interface much more. It's also not pre-loaded with a bunch of apps I don't want like the HTC Evo was. And with Lookout, I was able to restore all my data to my new phone.

There are some things you can do that will make life easier for you if you lose your phone. First, lock the device with a PIN or screen pattern lock. I also highly recommend a service like Lookout, or apps like Where's My Droid and Apple's Find My iPhone, which also enables map-based tracking, an alarm feature for locating it nearby, as well as remote lock and wipe. Make sure you use a backup service or backup your mobile data on your computer regularly.

Verizon offers a Backup Assistant service for preserving contacts and includes Mobile Recovery with alarm, location, and remote lock and wipe features as part of its subscription-based Total Equipment Coverage. T-Mobile suggests setting a PIN for the SIM card to prevent anyone from making or receiving calls, and the company offers a free Mobile Backup service for storing contacts.

Once you have verified that the phone is lost or stolen (and not just hiding behind the dresser or under the car seat), carriers recommend that you report it stolen to them and police immediately to suspend service and prevent anyone from running up charges on it.

And if you end up ignoring my advice to use a service that helps track missing phones you can always fall back on Lookout's Plan B. It's a free Android app that you can remotely install on your phone over the Web through the Lookout Web site after you lose the phone. It sends a text message to the device and uses cell towers and GPS to locate the device, even if GPS is turned off.

Updated 11:10 a.m. PT to clarify that remote locate and scream are part of Lookout's free service.