When your phone gets snatched: A survival guide

Act quickly and follow these steps to get your life, and peace of mind, back.

Sarah McDermott Senior Sub-Editor
Sarah is CNET's senior copy editor in London. She's often found reading, playing piano or arguing about commas.
Expertise Copy editing, podcasts, baking, board games
Sarah McDermott
4 min read
Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Let's start with a confession: I'm one of those idiots you heard about on the news last year.

Cast your mind back to July 2016. It was the summer of Pokemon Go, the augmented reality game that had us scouring the streets for Hypnos, Jigglypuffs and Seels. It was also a summer plagued with Pokemon-related calamity. Distracted Pokemon hunters crashed into police cars, wandered onto military bases and fell off cliffs. One man even claimed to have been stabbed while playing the game.

Thankfully, in my case the only thing hurt was my bank balance. Well, that and my pride. I was loitering around CNET's London office, trying to capture a gym, when a gloved hand entered my peripheral vision. I only half noticed as it closed around my phone, a leather-clad thumb unhelpfully blocking my view of the Hypno I was trying to defeat. I flexed my fingers, but something felt wrong. It only dawned on me that my hand was empty when I looked up in time to see two people on a moped zoom away with my iPhone .

Losing an expensive piece of tech stung, but the experience was more unnerving than painful. It wasn't a violent mugging, but I still felt violated. Like you, I'd packed my phone with personal information and photographs, not to mention the apps and tools I use every day. Fortunately, if you find yourself in a similar predicament, or you just lose your phone, these simple steps can get you back on your feet.

Call the police

Call the police and report the theft. You should give them the phone's registration number (IMEI), which you can get from your phone provider if you don't know it (CDMA phones , like those from Verizon and Sprint, use a similar number called an ESN). Better yet, look up your IMEI or ESN in your phone's settings menu when you buy it and write it down for safekeeping. And after you report it, keep the police report or crime reference number -- you'll need it if you want to make an insurance claim.

Contact your phone company

Also get in touch with your phone provider right away. If someone is using your phone to make calls, you may be liable if you don't report it. Once your provider knows your phone's been stolen, it will suspend your service. But beware: A thief could still use an unlocked phone over Wi-Fi. You might also get a replacement phone from your provider, but more on that later.


Get lost, old passwords. You're no good here anymore.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Change all the passwords

Ideally, you'll have protected your phone with a passcode lock and disabled access to any features from the lock screen. If you haven't, do so immediately (for more security, don't rely only on a fingerprint scanner). On an Android phone, I'd opt for an alphanumeric passcode over a swipe pattern as a thief may be able to guess it by following the finger smudges on your display. And if you aren't already using two-step authentication, now's the time to set it up.

Passcode or no, change any passwords for apps or services connected to your phone the minute you get to a computer. To make sure you'll get everything, make a list of accounts connected to your phone and keep it in a separate place. You should also remotely sign out of any websites or apps you had open. Prioritize your email, social media and anything connected to your bank accounts. Then keep going.

Track your phone

If you've installed Find My iPhone, Find My Device for Android or Samsung's Find My Mobile service, you may be able to see the location of your missing phone. These services also allow you to lock your phone remotely with a new passcode or erase it if you don't expect to get it back. Just remember that you won't be able to use any of these features if the phone isn't connected to a cellular or public Wi-Fi network. You can send the commands at any time, though, and the phone will complete them when it reconnects.

You can also use these apps to remotely disable mobile payment services. That should cover you, but you should still warn your bank right away of possible fraudulent charges.

Watch this: What you look like playing Pokemon Go

Reach for the cloud

In an age of streaming music and cloud-based storage, most of the precious information you access on your phone might not even be stored there. Google , for example, automatically syncs your device settings, app data and contacts with the cloud. With an iPhone, either you'll have backed it up to your computer (hopefully quite recently) or synced your contacts, calendar information and settings with iCloud. Apps are retrievable, too: Just go back to your app store to download anything you've paid for to a new device.

The bad news: If you've saved anything to your phone that isn't backed up elsewhere, it may not be retrievable. 

Learn to love again


It's harder than ever to lose all your stuff. But a manual backup can't hurt.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

After a day or so navigating the city without the help of Google Maps , you'll have to accept that your old phone isn't coming back. So what to do now? If you have insurance from your carrier or credit card, then your journey ends here: You'll get a new phone to replace your lost one.

For the less responsible among us (guilty!) you've got a few options. Depending on how close you are to the end of your contract, you might be able to upgrade right away. If not, there are other options. You could roll the dice on a used phone or, if you're lucky, someone you know could be about to upgrade and you'll be able to snap up a hand-me-down. It all depends on how much you're prepared to pay. 

This story appears in the winter 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

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