What to Do If Your Phone Goes Missing
The best time to worry about cell phone security is now, before your phone disappears. By taking some sensible precautions, you can make your phone easy to recover, and even safeguard your data.
Losing a phone actually entails three separate losses: the hardware itself, the data on the device, and the security that you would normally enjoy by maintaining control over your data.
To minimize the collective impact that these losses can have on your life, you should address each of the three facets separately. First, take steps to make your phone recoverable, or at least easily replaceable, in the event that it goes AWOL. Second, keep an up-to-date backup copy of the data on the phone in a safe place. Third, make sure that nobody else can access that data if your phone gets lost or stolen.
Lock Down Your Phone
Before we consider various fancy-pants tricks for securing and finding a lost phone, let's focus on the most basic task: setting a password.
Nearly every cell phone on earth--smart or otherwise--has some kind of passcode protection built in, yet almost nobody uses the feature because it adds an annoying 3-second delay to the process of making a call. Well, get over it. Set a password--or an "unlock pattern," if you're an Android user. Do it now, and you'll avoid worrying later on whether someone out there is reading through your e-mail or accessing your Facebook account on your lost phone.
Make Your Phone Recoverable (or Easily Replaceable)
Usually, losing a cell phone is a short-term problem. (When in doubt, check under your car seat.) But even if your handset ends up wandering miles away in the hands of a stranger, you may be able to get it back. Regardless, taking the right precautions ahead of time can minimize the various expenses associated with losing the device.
The first step in taking the sting out of losing your mobile phone is to shell out a few dollars per month for handset insurance from your carrier. When you buy a new phone, do this at the same time. If you have a phone but haven't yet signed up for insurance through your carrier, do so now. For a monthly fee of about $8 (for smartphones), the insurance will guarantee you a quick, free replacement if you lose the phone--and it will get you up and running if you do something silly like run over the handset with a motorcycle.
Of course, collecting on your handset insurance is a last resort if you lose your phone. The better outcome is to find the device quickly after it vanishes. Fortunately, you have plenty of good options for doing this.
If you lose your phone in some mundane way, such as by dropping it under a coffee table, and you're sure it must be nearby but you just can't find it, you can call it from another phone so that it will ring until you can home in on it. If you frequently set your handset to silent mode, you can obtain any of several cheap or free apps (available for most smartphone platforms) designed to override the phone's current settings and make it ring at full volume whenever it goes into hiding.
For Android users, the free Where's My Droid is a great first choice among quick locator apps. This Android Market download lets you set up a passphrase that you can use to activate a loud ring on your phone. Just borrow a friend's phone and send your passphrase via SMS (or use your phone's SMS e-mail address, such as firstname.lastname@example.org), and your phone will automatically adjust its ringtone to maximum volume and ring for a preset length of time--or until you find it and tell it to stop.
BlackBerry users have a number of choices as well. The best free option is Where's My Phone, available from the BlackBerry App World store as a feature-limited version of a more robust paid app. With the free version, you can trigger a loud alarm via e-mail to help you find your BlackBerry. The $4 paid version adds more features, such as GPS location.
For iPhone users, a 99-cent app called Beep My Cell offers similar functionality, along with the option to add a custom message for anyone who finds the device (if it's not where you thought it was). Rather than relying on e-mail or text messages to trigger its beeping, you log in to beepmycell.com and click Beep My Cell to start up the noise.
Another low-cost utility is PhoneFinder With Google Maps, which brings this functionality to Windows Mobile handsets. A text message to this $1.50 app causes PhoneFinder to kick on the ringer and transmit the phone's GPS location to the handset that sent the SMS, giving you two ways to look for it at once.