When cell phone disaster strikes, you have some options

Don't wait until your phone is stolen or submerged to prepare for the worst.

smartphone in water
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One of the most common and saddest inquiries we get at Answer Line is how to retrieve photos and videos from a phone that’s been stolen, or that’s been dropped in water and no longer works. You may be able to save the phone or its data if you try these steps. 

In case of a dead phone, you can most likely get the data back using a recovery service—at a very steep price. DriveSavers, a longtime player in the data recovery field, charges $700 to $1900 for a 128GB iPhone, depending on the amount of data involved. They’ll check whether it can be recovered for free, but birth and wedding images aside, that’s probably more than most users are willing to pay.

[Have a tech question? Send your query to answer@pcworld.com.]

In the case of theft, we’re sorry to say you’re out of luck—at least if that’s the only place your stored your files. We hope you backed them up. We’ll tell you how to make sure they’re backed up in a bit, after we cover a few tips for making the best of bad situations. 

If you drop it in water

If you drop your live cell phone in water, turn it off immediately and remove the battery as quickly as possible. If it died before you could turn it off yourself, the rest of this might not work, but you can try (and start mulling over the recovery option).

After the phone is off, dry it thoroughly. Two common methods are to use a hair dryer held at a safe distance, or submerge it in a jar of rice. Once you think it’s dry, wait another 24 hours just to make sure, then cross your fingers and turn it on. If you were able to turn it off, your chances are rather good—but no guarantees.

Change account passwords if your phone was stolen

Unfortunately, if your phone is stolen, and the thief manages to unlock it, every app that you’ve signed into will be at their beck and call. You should immediately go online and change the passwords to those accounts.

Back up automatically

All the major phone operating systems offer free protection for your files: Apple with iCloud, Microsoft with OneDrive, and Android with Google Photos. As your email, contacts and calendars are most likely already part of those data ecosystems, they’re already duplicated online and on your other devices. But for reasons of privacy, you need to explicitly enable backup of your photos and videos.

If you live off of your phone, and many people do, but don’t want to enable automatic backups, you’ll need to regularly transfer photos to other storage, such as a computer, USB drive, or SD card.

Android (phone or tablet): Open Google Photos, click on the three bars representing a menu in the upper left, select Settings > Backup & sync, and make sure Backup & sync is enabled. Yes, that’s all there is to it. Previously, this was done with Google+ under Settings > Instant upload.

iPhone/iPad: Create an iCloud account if you aren’t already using one. Go to Settings > iCloud and set Photos to On. Once you’ve done that, open Photos and tap Turn on iCloud Photo Library when prompted. Alas, the iCloud Photo library is a sync library, so deleting a file from your phone deletes it from the library, and vice versa. Consider using something like Dropbox or OneDrive, which are described below.

Windows Phone: Set up a Live account if you don’t already have one. Go to Settings > Photos & camera > Auto upload and turn on the Back up photos and videos options. Note that a Windows update sometimes alters settings, so check back occasionally to make sure the options are still enabled. 

DropBox and OneDrive are available for all three major phone platforms. While they don’t offer as much free storage as Google Drive, they will automatically upload your photos and videos. And, unlike iCloud, they won’t delete them when they are deleted from your phone. In the long run, this means more maintenance, but securing your memories is worth it. 

Note that uploads may not be instantaneous, especially if you have them limited to uploading only via Wi-Fi, which is a smart idea if you want to limit cellular data usage.

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