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How to find a lost smartphone

You love your smartphone. You never go anywhere without it and you have steadily loaded it up with more and more of your personal data. You have dozens of the latest and greatest apps, and you constantly reach for your phone to play video games, enjoy your favorite TV shows, and occasionally watch a full-length movie.

And then suddenly the unthinkable happens: Your smartphone is lost. Maybe you left it in the back of a taxi cab, or maybe it slipped out of your bag when you were checking in at the airport. Whatever happened, it’s now gone and your indispensable electronic friend has been replaced by a feeling of rising panic and the inevitable question: ‘What do I do now?’

Luckily, several apps have been developed for the sole purpose of finding lost cell phones. You no longer have to wait and hope that someone will find your phone, go through your address book and call up a friend. Now, you can be pro-active and start the search yourself. Here are just a few of the apps that can help:

iPhone users

Find My iPhone is a custom iPhone locator app, which is built into iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system. You go to Settings, tap iCloud, and enable Find My iPhone. Then if you misplace your phone, you can sign in to iCloud from any computer or web-enabled device. Find My iPhone will show you where your missing iPhone is on a map or play a sound to help you locate your phone if you think it's nearby.

Find My iPhone also includes Lost Mode. If your iPhone is missing, you can immediately lock your phone with a 4-digit passcode and send a message that will display a contact number on the home screen of your phone. This enables anyone finding the phone to call you from your locked screen without accessing any other data. While in Lost Mode, the device will also keep track of where it’s been and report back to you anytime you check in with the Find My iPhone app.

With this week's announcement of iOS 7, Apple has added another layer of security. Now turning off Find My iPhone or erasing your device requires your Apple ID and password. This is to combat the increasing threat of iPhone thieves, who are not looking to use your iPhone themselves but instead will seek to re-set the phone to its factory settings and sell it.

Find My iPhone can also continue to display the "please call me to return my iPhone" message even after the phone has been wiped. Again, it will be impossible to reactivate the phone or unlock the device without the owner's Apple ID and password.

Keep in mind that Find My iPhone and Lost Mode will only work if the phone is turned on and connected to a cellular or Wi-Fi network.

Android users

Google recently updated its Android operating system to add a new feature called Android Device Manager, which helps Android smartphone owners find their lost or stolen smartphones and tablets. Android Device Manager is activated through the Google Settings app. The locator feature is enabled by default, and there is also an opt-in feature to allow you to remotely lock your device or erase the data.

To use the locator feature, visit Android Device Manager online and log in with your Google account. You will get a prompt asking for permission to allow Android Device Manager to use location data. Click on the "Accept" button to continue.

There are three options under Android Device Manager: 1) you can locate your phone on a map, along with the place it was last used; 2) you can choose to ring your device; and 3) you can force a factory rest, which will erase all your data, including apps, photos, music and settings. Once your device has been wiped, you will no longer be able to access it through Android Device Manager, so this is truly a last resort.

Along with Android Device manager, there are a host of third-party apps that can do the same job. Perhaps the most comprehensive are two security apps. The first is Lookout, which allows you to track your phone online via GPS, and also remotely lock and wipe your phone if you believe it’s stolen or permanently missing. The other is WaveSecure from McAfee, which offers location and SIM card tracking, backup and restore, and lock and wipe. WaveSecure costs $19.90 a year after a 7 day free trial.

SeekDroid ($4.99) is another app that offers a slew of features for tracking down a lost or stolen Android phone. You can access a web site to locate your device via GPS, set off the phone’s alarm, lock it, and remotely wipe it. SeekDroid even works if a thief swaps the SIM card. Phone Locator Pro ($3.99) and Where’s My Droid (Free) are also well-regarded Android phone recovery apps.

Windows Phone users

Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 offers a very similar service to Android Device Manager called Find My Phone. Just log in to Windows Phone using your Microsoft ID and password and you will have the option to locate your phone, ring it, or erase all the data.

The old-fashioned way

All the above solutions rely on your phone having a cellular connection or being accessible through a Wi-Fi network. But what about the times when it's turned off or a network isn't available? Well, you can also revert to the tried and trusted method of including your name and contact info on your lock screen, so anyone who turns your phone on will immediately see who to call.

This is as easy as taking a photo of your contact info with your phone and then selecting it as your home screen, or you can design something a little more interesting and upload it from your computer. Remember, this may get you a quicker response from someone who randomly finds your lost phone but it's unlikely to deter the criminals!

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