5 Steps to Protect Your Smartphone From Theft or Loss

Here's what to do when your phone goes missing and once you get it back

Illustration of a cell phone with multiple rings around it. Illustration: Getty Images

Losing a cell phone phone is a special kind of suffering. Every time I misplace mine, I panic—dumping the contents of my purse, digging through the couch cushions, and groping under the car seats.

I bet you can relate.

Smartphones are not only prohibitively expensive—they also contain a detailed summary of your personal life. Photos of the places you frequent, family members, and other people you know. Revealing text messages. Bank and credit card info.

With smartphone theft on the rise, all of that data in the wrong hands could be dangerous to your privacy and your wallet. Here’s how to keep strangers from accessing your personal information, safely back up and retrieve the photos and videos stored on the device, and, with a little luck, increase your chances of recovering a lost phone.  

Before Your Smartphone Is Gone

Step 1: Use Strong Password Protection
This is your first and strongest line of defense. Most phones today offer some form of biometric authentication, a way to conveniently unlock the device with a fingerprint or facial recognition technology. But you still need a strong password, because one that’s easy to guess could unlock your phone and allow someone to override the biometric safeguards. Better yet, as Samsung notes in its blog, using biometrics “frees you up to set an extra-strong password, since you won’t need to input it constantly.”

More on Smartphones

Skip the simple 4-digit PIN and instead create a strong password that contains a string of at least eight characters that include some combination of letters, numbers, and special characters that don’t form recognizable words or phrases, especially those that could be associated with you. For instance, Freddy1969 is a weak password, but f?EDD!9691 could be much harder to crack. If your phone can’t be unlocked with your finger or your face—or you prefer not to use biometric authentication—the good news is that typing a nontrivial password gets easier with practice. 

Password protection comes with another safeguard. After several unsuccessful tries to enter a passcode, some phones will lock your device for a short period of time before you can try again. 

There’s also a setting on the latest Android and Apple phones that automatically erases all of your personal data after 10 or so unsuccessful log in attempts. If your phone provides this option, here’s how to activate it. Just be sure to keep backups (see Step 4).

On an Android phone: Go to Settings > Lock Screen > Secure Lock Settings > and toggle the Auto Factory Reset option to switch it on. (These steps were tested on a Samsung Galaxy S21. The labels may vary slightly on other Android models.) 

On an iPhone: Go to Settings > Touch ID & Passcode. Enter your passcode, then scroll to the bottom and tap the Erase Data toggle to switch it on.

Step 2: Enable Find My Phone

The same GPS and network connections that help your phone find the best nearby restaurants and the fastest way home can help you locate and protect that phone should it go missing. To take best advantage of this, the phone must be turned on and have a cellular or WiFi connection, although the phone might be traceable through the last location recorded when it was powered up. Location tracking (GPS) also must be enabled in order to find the phone on a map. To enable this setting:

On an Android phone: Go to Settings > Security > Find My Device and toggle Find My Device. On some devices, this setting might be called Find My Mobile and be under Security & Location or Biometrics and Security.

On an iPhone: Go to Settings > Your name > Find My, and toggle Find My iPhone to switch it on. You can also opt to share your location with friends and family, see your device even when it’s offline, and send the location of your iPhone to Apple when the battery is critically low.

Step 3: Attach a Note

You may not love the idea of marring your phone’s great looks, but doing so may increase your chances of getting it back if it’s found by an honest person. Tape a tiny note on the back of your phone or its case with your email address or a work number. In our informal tests, printing an email address in a small font and taping it on with a small strip of shipping tape worked well on smooth metal or plastic surfaces. On rubbery or rough surfaces, neatly write that info, using a fine-point permanent marker, on a small strip of duct or electrical tape, which clings better to such surfaces. Choose a spot on the phone that’s least likely to receive constant rubbing from your palm or fingers.

On Android phones, you can also type such a message in the Owner Info section of the Security submenu in Settings. But if you erase the contents of your phone, that message will disappear.

Step 4: Back Up Your Photos and Videos

Phone carriers, phone makers, and operating systems typically offer free over-the-air backup for photos, settings, and more. These options often appear when you set up the phone for the first time, though you can always activate them later. Selecting a carrier-neutral source, such as Apple’s iCloud or Android’s Google Drive, will make it easier to retrieve your precious memories should your next phone be from a different carrier.

Check our comparison of cloud backup and storage options.

Step 5: Write Down Your Phone's Unique ID Number

Smartphones have a unique serial number known as an IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) or MEID (Mobile Equipment Identifier). Unlike other identifying information stored on the phone’s removable SIM card, these numbers are etched into its circuits and are difficult to alter. Your cell carrier already has this number on file and may be able to use it to put the phone on a missing phone list. Some police departments ask for either of these numbers when you report a stolen phone so that they’ll be able to return it to you if it’s recovered. 

To find your phone’s unique IMEI or MEID number, use any of these following steps:

Dial *#06# from your phone. The number should pop up on your screen.

On an Android phone: Go to Settings > About Phone. The number should be on that screen.

On an iPhone: Go to Settings > General > About. Scroll down to find the number. If you don’t see the IMEI/MEID there, it may be etched on the SIM tray or engraved on the back of the phone.

After the Phone Is Gone

The sooner you act, the better your chances of retrieving your phone or securing your data. Here are key actions to take.

Step 1: Seek and (Possibly) Destroy

Because thieves will probably turn off the phone fairly quickly, yank out its SIM card, or put it in a room or box shielded from wireless connections, it’s imperative that the minute you learn your phone is missing, you send it commands you think are appropriate. Time is of the essence also because this step requires your phone to be on and have some battery life left.

As soon as possible, call or text your phone from another device. That might be all it takes, if your phone is just misplaced nearby.

Then log on to your Find My Phone service from a secure device. For an Android phone, go to Google’s Find My Device in a browser. For an iPhone, go to iCloud Find My iPhone

Use the service to make your phone play a sound. You can also lock the screen and display a message for someone who finds your phone. An honest person may come across your device and notify you via the contact info on the screen or taped to your phone. 

If you think the phone might have fallen into the wrong hands, you can erase the data on it remotely using Find My Device or Find My iPhone.

Step 2: Report the Loss to Your Service Provider

Inform your mobile carrier that your phone has been lost or stolen. It can suspend service to prevent anyone from using the device on its network and possibly mark the phone as unusable even on a new carrier or with a different SIM card. Note that your device will still be usable over WiFi. 

You can notify your provider by going to one of its stores, calling, or logging on to its website.

AT&T: Call 800-331-0500 or go to AT&T’s Suspend page and follow the prompts. 

T-Mobile: Call 800-937-8997 or go to My T-Mobile, and in the My Line section click on your device name to find the Report Lost or Stolen option.

Verizon: Call 800-922-0204 or go to the Suspend or Reconnect Service page in My Verizon and follow the prompts.

Step 3: Change Your Important Passwords

As soon as you realize your phone is missing and potentially in danger of falling into someone else’s hands, go to your computer or other secure device, log in to every account you had on your phone (banking, shopping, email, etc.) and change your passwords. Start with your email account and the financial and shopping accounts that have your credit card on file, such as Amazon or your bank, and quickly move on to social networks. If you’ve set up a password manager, this task will be easy. If you aren’t using a password manager yet, now’s a great time to start.

Step 4: Report the Loss to the Police and File an Insurance Claim (If You’re Covered)

Notifying the police not only launches an official recovery attempt but also helps speed up the process of making an insurance claim (if you have an insurance plan for your phone). You might also need a police report to dispute fraudulent credit card charges, and some credit cards issuers will reimburse you for a stolen phone.

If You Recover Your Phone

Wipe it anyway. You never know what malicious app or spyware someone may have installed while the phone was out of your hands. To be on the safe side, reset the phone to factory settings. If you see an option to erase everything, make sure you select it. (Before doing that, though, check the backups on your computer or cloud service to make sure that you have copies of all the irreplaceable photos and videos that were on your phone.) Some phones give you the option of resetting their settings without erasing everything. Make sure you check the Reset Everything option.

On an Android phone: Go to Settings > System > Advanced > Reset Options > Erase All Data (factory reset). Samsung phone owners should go to Settings > General Management > Reset > Factory Data Reset.

On an iPhone: Go to Settings > General > Reset. You’ll see a warning that the next step will erase all your media and data, followed by a red Erase button. Tap this, and after a few minutes your iPhone is ready to restore.

Headshot of CR author Melanie Pinola

Melanie Pinola

I've loved gadgets for as long as I can remember. In fact, my first smartphone was the Nokia 9000, a marvel in the late '90s for having the world's first graphical web browser on a mobile device. I'm still enchanted with technology, and as a tech writer, it's my goal to help people get the most out of it. When I'm not researching or writing, I'm playing video games with my family, testing new recipes, or trying to get my puppy to stop eating sticks. Feel free to reach me on Twitter (@melaniepinola).