You just put it down for a second, but then you turn around and your phone is gone. If you’re in a crowd—a bar, an airport, the subway—you probably didn’t see it coming. Smartphone theft has decreased since so many phones now ship with anti-theft software, but cellphone theft statistics are irrelevant when you’re the victim. As soon as you realize your phone is gone, it’s important to take swift action.
First and Foremost: Lock or Erase Your Phone
If you are certain that your phone has been stolen and not just lost, there’s no point in waiting: Immediately do whatever you can remotely to lock your phone or completely delete your phone’s data. Locking or erasing your phone is commonly performed using a “kill switch,” and all modern smartphones have it.
Lock or erase your phone using Find My Device. For Find My Device to work, you first must have the Google “Location” service turned on (Settings > Google > Location). To activate Find My Device (which is on by default), go to Settings > Google > Security > Find My Device.
You may have an option to open the Find My Device app or use a browser to navigate to https://www.google.com/android/find. From here, you can either:
Choose Secure Device. This option locks your phone and signs you out of your Google account. You can also display a message with contact information, in case you think the phone might just be lost and there is a possibility of it being returned. Or;
Choose Erase Device. This is your most dire option, but don’t hesitate to choose it if you are sure your phone has been stolen. This erases all your phone’s data. Note that this option makes it impossible to locate the phone, so if you are hoping to find the perp, hold off on this one until you talk to the police.
Use Find My iPhone feature to lock or erase your phone. For iPhones, turning on Find My iPhone instantly enables Activation Lock. This cool feature requires your Apple ID and password before anyone can turn off Find My iPhone or erase, reactivate or use your phone.
At this point, you can put the phone into Lost Mode either by signing into iCloud on a laptop or using the Find My iPhone app. Finally, choose Erase iPhone if you are positive your phone has been stolen. This option immediately disables Apple Pay and deletes all your phone’s content.
WARNING: Don’t even think about trying to find the thief yourself using Find My Device or Find My iPhone. It’s way too dangerous. (You want to live long enough to get a shiny new replacement phone, don’t you?)
Tell Your Carrier
As soon as you’ve secured your phone, report the theft to your carrier. Your carrier will immediately suspend or disconnect your service to avoid any unauthorized calls. If you don’t take this step, you may be liable for charges.
Change Your Passwords
This can be painful, but it’s absolutely necessary. Start with any financial accounts, email and social media. Try to think about all the apps or bookmarks you have on your phone that may contain login details—or apps that are set to stay logged in on your device—and make sure you change the passwords for each. Sign out of any websites or apps on your laptop/desktop/tablet etc., choosing to log out of “all sessions” if that is available. Facebook, Google and Twitter provide this option, and other online accounts may offer it as well.
Report the Theft
Report the theft to your local police. While it’s a long shot that you’ll get your phone back, your chances are zero if you never report it.
Before Your Phone Is Stolen
Not to say “I told you so,” but the best actions to take regarding a lost or stolen phone are before you lose it. Consider the following phone anti-theft tips:
Set up your phone with a passcode or pattern lock that is difficult to guess, along with a biometric lock like a fingerprint scanner or iris scanner (if available on your device).
Use two-factor authentication on all financial apps.
Don’t maintain a “home” address in Google maps that could lead the thief right to your door.
Don’t set your phone to display texts or other alerts on the home page when you are not logged in.
Consider adding a Bluetooth tracker to your security arsenal. A gadget like Cube Tracker can be a lifesaver if you’re on your own with no laptop or access to other mobile devices when your phone gets stolen. These kinds of trackers are also useful for finding other items like keys or wallets, so they do double-duty for you.
Finally, remember to be safe. Don’t take risks to get your phone back. After all, it’s just a phone.
Shelley Hoose is a writer and editor with a background in tech and the environment. Find her at http://theagilepen.com.