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The last time I lost my phone, I panicked. Like 85% of Americans, I have a smartphone, and pretty much my whole world is inside that device. Losing your phone is no fun when your most precious data — from photos to passwords to payment info — is at stake.
If you’re here because your own phone was lost or stolen and you’re wondering what to do, you’re in the right place. Leading cyber security expert Adam Levin has helped me assemble a thorough, step-by-step checklist of action items for dealing with a missing phone.
One thing that can help is a program like McAfee Multi Access. The software has built-in mobile security features that protect your privacy and identity. It lets you easily locate, lock and wipe your data remotely as soon as you realize the device is gone. It also issues warnings about dangerous downloads and questionable websites, and it thwarts viruses, malware and ransomware attacks — because thieves don’t need your actual device in order to steal your information.
“For a lot of people, losing a phone is more than an annoying inconvenience,” Levin tells Yahoo Life. “Your phone is now a central repository for most of your information.” Addressing a lost or stolen phone requires a dual approach: try to find your device and take steps to erase your data in the meantime.
From a security standpoint, Levin — who cohosts the cybersecurity podcast What the Hack — recommends doing “whatever you need to do to make sure that if your phone falls into the wrong hands, they can't use it. They might be able to resell the device itself, but they can't mine any of the information off of it because you've made that information go away.”
1. Call and text your phone.
Before you flip, make sure the phone is actually missing and not just misplaced. It could be 50 miles away in the hands of a thief who swiped it from your purse — or it could just be buried at the bottom of your purse. Give your phone a call and a text. In the best case scenario, someone will pick up or respond to your text on their own phone. Or you’ll hear the faint sound of your phone ringing or vibrating in the next room.
2. Activate your security software.
Mobile security software like McAfee Multi Access is literally built for situations like this. One subscription applies to five devices, and that includes both Android phones and iPhones. It removes all the individual steps involved in tracking your lost phone, remotely locking it, wiping its data, and so on. On a computer or mobile device, you’ll log into McAfee Multi Access' central device management portal to start your sleuthing. It’s all in one place.
3. Track your lost phone.
If you don’t have mobile security software, try to find your phone’s location manually. If you can locate your phone, you can attempt to retrieve it.
For Android phones, use the “Find My Device” feature by going to android.com/find and signing into your Google account. For iPhones, use the “Find My iPhone” feature by logging into iCloud.com/find. In both cases, you’ll be able to see the approximate location of your phone on a virtual map — but only if you have the feature activated on your phone already. For Android phones, the “Find My” feature lets you ring your phone at full volume for five minutes even if it’s on silent or vibrate. The “Find My” feature on iPhone works even if the device is turned off or dead.
4. Wipe your phone remotely.
Next, you want to erase the phone’s data. For a lost Android phone, while logged into your Google account at android.com/find, choose “Enable Lock & Erase.” You can then lock your phone from afar using your PIN, pattern or password (or create one on the spot). You can then permanently delete all the data on your phone — but bear in mind, “Find My Device” will also be deactivated if you do this.
For a lost iPhone, the process is similar. While logged into iCloud.com/find, mark your phone as “lost,” and you’ll be prompted to remotely lock it by entering the passcode. Then erase it remotely; if you have the latest iOs installed, you might still be able to use the “Find My” feature after it’s totally wiped. You can even input a custom message on the iPhone’s display, so Good Samaritans can return it.
“Hopefully your information's also being backed up in the cloud,” warns Levin, emphasizing the importance of making sure your phone is always set for automatic backups. That way remotely wiping your data is no sweat, because it’s being saved virtually and can be downloaded onto your new device.
5. Deactivate your digital wallet and change your passwords, if necessary.
Locking your phone and erasing its data remotely will protect any credit or debit cards you have linked to your digital wallet. But what if for some reason you can’t wipe the phone? Luckily, Google Pay doesn’t save your individual card info, so anyone who steals your phone cannot access your payment methods, even if your phone is unlocked — but you can still contact mobile support to have Google Pay removed from that device. On an iPhone, you can go directly to iCloud.com/find or use the Find My iPhone app to deactivate or permanently delete Apple Pay from that phone.
Not having the ability to wipe your phone remotely can also put your passwords at risk. Consider changing passwords on all the accounts you can think of, and invest in a password manager like LastPass Premium to change all your passwords automatically going forward.