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How to recover a lost phone, tablet, or laptop

Armando Rodriguez and Nick Mediati | Sept. 26, 2011
The bad news: At some point, your cell phone is likely to go missing. Whether it falls out of your pocket in a cab, or you leave it unattended in a public place for a few seconds only to have it swiped by someone with sticky fingers and low moral fiber, your phone is vulnerable. In fact, according to a report from security software company Symantec, 36 percent of U.S. consumers have had a cell phone disappear on them.

In Mac OS X, open Keychain Access in your Utilities folder (or do a Spotlight search for it), and within the Keychain Access menu, select Preferences. From there, check the box labeled Show keychain access in the menu bar. A lock icon will appear in the menu bar; that icon will allow you to lock your password keychains, as well as your screen.

Use security software on your smartphone: Even though PINs, patterns, and passwords are a good first line of defense, you'll need much more to keep your data safe. In fact, one of the first things you should do when you purchase a new phone is to install a mobile security suite.

On Android, apps such as Lookout Mobile Security, Norton Mobile Security, Seekdroid, and Webroot Mobile Security let you remotely locate your absent device, lock it, or wipe all data from it. Some of these apps also in­­clude antimalware and phishing safeguards, so you'll be protected even in your day-to-day activities. Seekdroid costs $1, while the rest of the listed mobile security suites are free (you will have to pay extra to unlock all of their features, however).

Apps for iOS are more limited. We recommend that you install the Find My iPhone app on all of your iPads, iPhones, and iPod Touches. After installing the app, you can use your Apple ID to sign in to, which will open to a map showing your iOS device's approximate location, as well as options for displaying a message on the lost hardware, remotely locking it, or remotely wiping it. Find My iPhone does require a little setup, but operation is straightforward once you have it working.

The only drawback to Find My iPhone is that it's easy to disable, whereas several of the Android security suites we've mentioned will either request a password or hide the app. We're hoping that you followed our earlier advice and set up a PIN on your device to prevent people from getting into it and then uninstalling the security app.

Track your laptop: You can hunt down a lost laptop in much the same way that you track a missing smartphone. Consider investing in LoJack for Laptops, a subscription service that makes it easier for both you and law enforcement to find your laptop. The service permits you to track the notebook's location (some plans track only IP addresses, while others track by using GPS), lock it so that nobody can access the data, remotely wipe the hard drive, and perform other tasks. LoJack requires a piece of software that you install on your computer; versions are available for Windows and Mac. Plans start at $40 per year.


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