March 11, 2017
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We all know the feeling, that sudden amount of fear that envelops us the moment we realize we’ve lost our phone. Your heart beats a little bit faster as you attempt to recall the last time you’ve used it, but even then, there’s no pause for you until you’re reunited with it – safely back into your hands. Calming down would be beneficial of course to help your focus, however, most of us are already thinking about the worst case scenario.

Those priceless photos of loved ones, the candid videos from parties, and all your private information, are all at stake when you lose your phone or have it stolen. Sure, a password protection of some kind helps to stave off the regret of losing it in the first place, but even then, you can’t relinquish the thought about how that time is just against you – more so when everything in your phone is potentially at stake!

So, what can you do if you somehow find yourself in this predicament with your Android device? We recently checked out a couple of solutions that would naturally be first on your to-do list, but as we attempted to retrace our steps and track down our missing Android device, we were foolish to believe there was going to be a high chance of being reunited with it again. Lose your Android phone, good luck trying to get it back!

The preparation

To be fair, when we were preparing for this piece we looked at two scenarios taking place – one that involved someone physically stealing a phone, and other simply being misplacing it somewhere. In both situations, we used Android Device Manager and a third party anti-theft app; the Cerberus app in this case. And to shed more light on this particular scenario, we conducted the tests in the sprawling area of Times Square in New York City.

Having your phone stolen is rough, especially when it’s deliberate. At stake here is not only the phone itself, which the theif can try to sell for a profit, but all the personal information that’s stored in it as well. So essentially, the scenario plays out when our Android phone is stolen from our pocket. Given that we were preparing for this piece, we downloaded the Android Device Manager (ADM) app onto another spare phone (ahead of time).

Android Device Manager had some issues

For some odd reason or another, the stolen phone in this case, the LeEco Le Pro 3, was having difficulty being tracked by the app. When it works properly, such as in the case later on when we were playing around with it more with another phone, we were able to locate the “missing” phone on a map, lock the phone (if there’s no protection on it by default), ring the phone so that an audible tone is heard, and even the option to remotely wipe the thing as a last resort. All options are what you’d expect, so it’s nice that there are still ways of protecting yourself (and your Android phone).

Going back to the issue we were having in New York City, the Android Device Manager app just couldn’t trace the phone’s last known GPS location. Sure, we were indoors, and the phone wasn’t unlocked or used for about 15 minutes, but you’d think it would’ve been able to at least provide us with a general vicinity – whether that’s done through cellular triangulation or something else. It was annoying to say the least, but we suspect that being indoors had something to do with it.

Regardless, when the “thief” started to move away from us, the app was finally able to trace the phone’s location. Traveling roughly a block away from our position, we were able to get to the “vicinity” of where the app was telling us its location. The problem, though, in a sprawling metropolis like New York City, is that the location can be in some building. So even though you’re right on top of the dot, the phone can technically be 50 floors up from the ground. And sure, we can activate the phone to emit a ring, but when you’re in a noisy spot like we were, it’s nearly impossible to hear.

Cerberus is comprehensive, but there’s one flaw

As an alternative to Google’s native system, we decided to also check out a third party anti-theft app that would help in tracking down a phone. Out of the handful you can find in the Google Play Store, we opted to try out the Cerberus app, which offers a 6-day free trial – and then you’ll need to subscribe to one of its plans, which starts at 5 euros (~$5.32) for protection up to 1 year for a single device.

What we like about Cerberus is that it’s a complete anti-theft solution app that allows you to not only perform the same actions given to us with ADM, but you can do other things such as remotely take phots/videos, send messages to the phone that’ll be read out aloud, and record audio from the microphone. Its breadth of features is above and beyond what ADM offers, but there’s just a single catch to it – this is something you’ll need to install ahead of time, prior to any unfortunate circumstance of losing or having the phone stolen.

While ADM there is to offer some kind of consolation during the early stages, Cerberus, much like other anti-theft apps, is more of a preventative measure that you’ll need to install pretty much on the first day of using your Android phone. Obviously, it’s worthless if you don’t have it installed. And this brings us to its major flaw, which is that unless you’ve done your research and had a prior experience with losing your phone, then this solution won’t do a damn thing when it happens to you unexpectedly.

Kiss your phone goodbye

After running through our scenario in New York City, we came to the realization that if you lose or have your Android phone stolen, the chances of you tracking, and subsequently find it, is pretty slim. We know, it sucks, but we’ve explained already about some of the logistical issues that are barriers in tracing the phone. Chances are, too, most people are carrying only a single – though in our case, we’re lucky to have a backup on hand.

The average person won’t have that luxury, which makes it worse attempting to come up with a plan on finding your lost phone when you realize you don’t have it. Time is a commodity that you won’t have, so it’s really best to track it down as soon as possible. Sure, you might be able to convince a good Samaritan who’s willing to install the ADM app (or even Cerberus) on their device for you to use, but chances are, most people would be reluctant to do that.

Where does that lead you? Then it means you’ll need to access ADM/Cerberus through a PC. Again, timing is crucial when it comes to successfully getting your phone, but if you can’t get to a computer in time, your phone might be long gone – and potentially far away from you by that time.

When are these apps useful?

Now to be fair, Android Device Manager is a great tool to use if you accidentally leave it at home, at a friend’s apartment, or any place in general you can recall. That’s because you’re not thinking worst case scenario yet, so when you make the realization, you log into your account from a PC. The reaffirmation, of course, helps to ease any stress on your mind, and this goes to show when these apps are really useful.

When your hunch is strongly telling you that you left it by accident at a place you can recall, the confirmation from logging onto your account helps to eliminate further worry. So yeah, these apps are most suitable to use for this particular scenario. And it helps, too, if you happen to leave it somewhere that isn’t as densely packed with other people – which makes the process of finding even tougher.

There’s still a chance for peace of mind

Let’s talk about the worst case scenario. What can you do at that point? First and foremost, we desperately hope that you somehow placed some kind of lock on the phone – whether it’s a pattern or PIN. Biometric verification, much like the fingerprint sensors we find in many phones nowadays, will absolutely help to increase unwanted eyes from accessing your data.

Indeed, a thief can attempt to enter your password, but after so many failed attempts (usually 10), Android by default resets the phone – making it almost impossible to extract your data. There might be ways still to get it even with a clean reset, but it’s quite involved obviously, something that most people wouldn’t want to go through anyways.

At this point, with the phone being reset and all, the thief might have plans to resell the phone – thus, making some sort of profit in the process. However, they’re sorely mistaken because during the setup process, the phone will ask you to provide the password of the previous Google account before it can be accessed. Quite frankly, it renders the phone useless, unless an oblivious buyer doesn’t attempt to go through the entire setup process to verify the phone is fully accessible.

There you have it! Even though there are other scenarios that we haven’t explored here, such as the case when a thief decides to turn off the phone or there’s just no connectivity in general from the phone, it’s nevertheless a scary experience that we hope you won’t have to endure. Naturally, time is working against you the moment it happens. While there’s always a small chance that you might be able to track it down, the apps we’ve explored here can at least give you some discretion about what to do when that worst case scenario arises.

And like we said, it’s best to have some sort of password protection on your phone, because that folks, is the first line of defense that can save you from intruders trying to do more than just steal your phone.

John Velasco
Storyteller, ongoing health nut, persistent complainer of running, & religious flosser.
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