This is your best hope for recovering photos from a lost or stolen phone

The phone may be gone, but your pictures could live on...depending on what your phone's settings were.

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Greta Flederbach lost her Samsung Galaxy 5. She asked if there’s any way she can recover the photos on it. My answer isn’t exclusive to that phone.

Assuming you have a smartphone, there’s a very good chance that your photos are in the cloud somewhere. But with an old-fashioned cell phone, the chances are pretty much nil.

I assume you’ve already tried the obvious—using another phone to call yours, and listen for the ring. But that won’t help if the phone is really lost, so let’s concentrate on where, aside from your phone, those photos may be.

If you’re trying to retrieve photos from a phone still in your possession, you may want to read my February article on that subject.

[Have a tech question? Ask PCWorld Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector. Send your query to answer@pcworld.com.]

Today’s smartphones can upload your photos automatically to the cloud. Whether your phone actually did that depends on two things:

  1. If that was the phone’s default setting.
  2. If you changed that setting.

On an Android phone, the uploaded photos probably uploaded to Google Drive. (I say probably because phone manufacturers like to change Android’s default settings.) To see if you’re in luck, open your browser of choice to Google Drive. Click the big blue Go to Google Drive button in the center. If you’re not logged onto your Google account (which could be your Youtube or Gmail account), you’ll have to log in with your password. Once there, click Google Photos in the left pane. If your photos are there, you’re in luck.

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iOS behaves in a similar way. Your photos have likely been uploaded to iCloud.

Something else to consider: Do you use another cloud-based storage service, such as Dropbox? If so, and if you installed the app for that service onto your phone, the photos may have uploaded to that service.

One caveat: All of these services default to uploading only when it has access to a Wi-Fi network. They do this to save you money—cellular services tend to have low data caps. So you may not be able to recover the most recent photos on the phone.

But if your phone is lost or stolen, the loss of photos may not be your biggest problem. Check with your carrier or the phone’s manufacturer to see what tools are built into the phone that can help you either recover the phone or make it useless to a thief.

Finally, it’s a good idea to make sure your photos are uploading before you lose your phone. If it’s an Android phone, follow the Google Drive instructions above to see if your photos are there. If not, check the Backup option in your phone’s settings; they vary from phone to phone.

Another option would be to set up a Dropbox account on your PC, then install the Dropbox app on your phone. You’ll find the Camera Upload feature in Dropbox Settings. It’s on by default.

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