What to Do When You Lose Your Tech Gear

When your cell phone, laptop, or other gear goes missing, these essential tips will improve your odds of recovering it

You don't know what you've got until it's gone, they say--and they might very well have been talking about my cell phone. A couple of months ago, while walking through the departures terminal at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, I reached into my coat pocket to grab my Motorola Droid--and panicked. Where I had expected to feel the cool metal case of my most trusted travel companion, my fingers reported only pocket lint and a couple of crumpled business cards. My phone had gone missing, and with it the security of my contacts, my banking information, my entire e-mail history, and my Facebook and Twitter logins--and I didn't even have a passcode on the phone.

As I stood in the midst of the bustling airport and realized the extent of my predicament, I felt a rush of blood to my head. If some less-than-honest person were to find the phone before I did, they would be just a single finger-tap away from every e-mail I had sent or received during the previous two years. If they tapped on my Facebook app, they could pretend to be me and hustle my family, friends, and colleagues with Western Union scams. In addition, they would have easy access to my GPS data, showing exactly where I live and potentially putting my family at risk.

After quickly checking the terminal and failing to spot my phone on the ground anywhere, I grabbed a stool at the nearby airport lounge, booted up my laptop, and began the arduous task of changing the passwords on all of my online accounts--from Gmail to PayPal to Twitter. But just then I heard a familiar ringtone emanating from behind the bar. Some Good Samaritan had found my smartphone on the floor minutes earlier and turned it in. My data, my identity, and my loved ones were safe--but only because I was lucky.

At that moment, I vowed never to repeat that experience. Since then, I've become a faithful custodian of my phone and all of my other mobile devices. Here's how you can add serious security to your mobile gear, making it harder to lose, easier to recover, and less prone to exposing your personal data if it falls into the wrong hands.

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 4155551212@vtext.com), 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.

Create a Smartphone Backup

The more extensively you use your cell phone, the more completely you de­­pend on the data it stores. So regularly backing up your phone makes sense.

Often the easiest way to perform a backup is by using a cable connection: Most smartphones--including models ranging from iPhones to BlackBerrys to Palm WebOS phones (including the Pre) to Windows Mobile devices--come with syncing utilities that are de­­signed to create a complete backup of the phone's contents. Thanks to those programs, if you sync your phone regularly, you should always have a recent copy of your files, contacts, messages, and photos safely stored on your computer. Do this religiously.

Unfortunately, though, not all smartphones encourage you to synchronize and back up your data manually. The worst offenders in this regard are An­­droid phones, which tend to behave a lot like stand-alone computers; for this reason it's easy to neglect syncing the phone to a desktop PC for months on end. Though Android is designed to work seamlessly with Google's cloud-based apps (such as Gmail, Calendar, and Contacts), which automatically sync all of your data to the Web, most of the data stored on your device won't automatically sync to anything.

A number of backup apps are available for Android, but my favorite is MyBackup Pro. This $5 app wirelessly syncs all of your Android phone's data--including apps, contacts, bookmarks, SMS messages, pictures, and music playlists--to a se­­cure server. If your phone is lost, stolen, or damaged, you can download the data onto a replacement phone and pick up where you left off.

Adopt Advanced Security Measures for Your Gear

Dealing with a misplaced phone that you know is somewhere in your own home or at a friend's house is no big deal. But if you leave your phone in a cab or unwittingly drop it on the sidewalk, you will probably need more-advanced recovery and protection features to get it back and keep its contents safe. Fortunately, a few cool programs and services are available that cover every major smartphone platform. They aren't free--but if your data is valuable to you, they're worth paying for.

If you want protection across multiple smartphone platforms, your best option is TenCube's WaveSecure. Available for Android, BlackBerry, Symbian S60, and Windows Mobile phones, WaveSecure provides as complete a package of protection as you can hope to have for a device that's prone to wandering away.

For $20 annually, WaveSecure en­­ables you to track the location of your phone, monitor its call log, and detect whether someone has changed its SIM card, all via a Web browser. In the event that your phone is lost or stolen, you will quickly have a pretty clear idea of where it is and what it's up to.

WaveSecure also lets you remotely back up the contents of your phone to the secure server and then wipe all of your data from the device. So even if the phone falls into the hands of a thief, none of your personal information will be at risk. After removing the data, you can either turn the location information over to the authorities in hopes of getting your phone back (don't count on it) or forget the stolen handset and use the insurance you bought from your carrier to purchase a replacement, and then download the backup of your data onto the new device.

Apple offers a similar tracking service, called Find My iPhone, for iPhone users. But you can get Find My iPhone only as a component of Apple's MobileMe service, which costs a whopping $99 per year (or $149 for a four-user family pack).

To its credit, the Find My iPhone interface is relatively slick and works very well. Like WaveSecure, Find My iPhone lets you track your phone's whereabouts and send a custom message to whoever may be holding it at the moment. It also allows you to wipe out the phone's contents remotely and lock the handset with a passcode re­­motely (in the event that you failed to set one up before losing the device).

Palm Pre users can obtain similar protection by signing up for Where Is My Pre. The premium version of this service, which costs $2 per month, enables you to view your phone's location on a map, send messages to the device, modify the phone's preferences remotely, and even take pictures with the phone's Webcam re­­motely to see who's holding it.

Protect Your Laptop From Loss or Theft

Losing your smartphone is bad enough, but losing your laptop can wreak serious havoc in your life. When your PC skips out on you, not only must you cope with lost data and the risk of having your information compromised, but you must also replace the laptop, which can be an expensive proposition. I'll explain how to improve your odds of getting your laptop back if it's lost or stolen, and share a few tips for securing your personal and business data.

Record your assets: A cheap laptop may cost as little as $400, but many business users and gamers carry machines worth $1500 to $2000--or more. Re­­gardless of how much money you spent on your laptop, it's wise to keep re­­ceipts related to your purchase, take a picture of your laptop, and register it on your homeowner's or renter's insurance policy. That way, losing your laptop won't have to be a huge financial burden on top of all the unavoidable hassles you'll face. (For more tips on dealing with insurance companies, see "Insurance Assurance."

Back up often: If you haven't been backing up your data as frequently as you should, don't feel bad--just go do it. Do it now. Do it weekly. But don't simply copy your files onto DVDs. Perform full system backups to a reliable, high-capacity external drive using Windows Backup or a similar backup utility. For a complete guide to using Windows Backup, see "Create Idiot-Proof Backups With Windows' Built-In Tools."

Back up redundantly: In addition to getting into the habit of maintaining a local system backup on an external drive, it's smart to back up your most important data (or even your entire system) to a remote, cloud-based service such as Mozy. That way, if catastrophe strikes your home or your office, you'll still have all of your information saved in a separate, secure location. For advice on selecting an Internet backup service that meets your needs, see "Find the Right Online Back­up Service."

Install a Recovery App and Sign Up With a Tracking Service

If your laptop is stolen, you have about a 2 percent chance of getting it back. But your odds can drastically improve if you run a tracking and recovery app such as zTrace or LoJack for Laptops.

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