Technology & Science

Smartphone-tracking apps: What to do when your phone is stolen

If you're thinking of using an app to try to retrieve a device that's been stolen, police and tech experts have a simple piece of advice: Don't do it.

File a police report, don't confront thieves, law officials advise

The shooting death of an 18-year-old man trying to retrieve his lost smartphone has prompted a manhunt in London, Ont., for three young men who were at the scene. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

If you own a smartphone, you probably already have one of these apps built in — device tracking tools like Find My iPhone or Where's My Droid that use GPS to locate your phone in case it goes missing.

But if you're thinking of using an app to try to retrieve a device that's been stolen, police and tech experts have a simple piece of advice: Don't do it.

Although there are stories of people who have managed to get their phones back, not all acts of vigilantism have a happy ending. Ontario teen Jeremy Cook was fatally gunned down this week after he traced his missing phone to an address in London, Ont., and confronted three men.

Many smartphones sold these days have GPS tracking apps built into them. (Gustau Nacarino/Reuters)
"Unfortunately, I think this is a perfect example of why sometimes technology will not solve the problem — in fact, it will get us into a whole lot of trouble," journalist and tech analyst Carmi Levy told CBC's Metro Morning.

Police also recognize that with apps making it so much easier, people may be tempted take matters into their own hands.

"It's great technology, but be mindful if it's taking you to an unfamiliar location," said Const. Jeniffer Sidhu, a spokeswoman for the Toronto Police Service. "Do not confront them."

Instead, Sidhu and Levy offer alternative advice:

Know your device's serial number (IMEI)

Before your phone even has a chance to go missing, you should find out your international mobile equipment identification number, or IMEI. 

"In simple terms, an electronic serial number," Sidhu explains.

To find your IMEI on most devices, dial *#0 6#, and the number should appear on your screen. Otherwise, the number should be printed on a white label underneath the battery.

Your IMEI is what you will need to give to your service provider or local law enforcement agency to report it missing, so you should write it down and store it somewhere safe.

Contact wireless service provider

Once your phone is lost or stolen, the first thing you should do is contact your wireless service provider. They will be able to help you deactivate your device and wipe it clean of your personal information, "rendering the phone useless to whoever has stolen it from you," Sihdu says.

Getting your stolen device on the national blacklist renders it useless to thieves. (Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
Devices that are reported missing to a service provider are placed on a national blacklist, preventing it from working on any Canadian wireless networks.

Sidhu also recommends password protecting your phone, making it even more difficult for thieves to access it.

File a police report

You should also contact your local law enforcement agency and file a report that includes your IMEI.

Although police may not investigate every individual case of a missing phone, if someone is arrested and found in possession of numerous devices or your phone is found in a pawn shop, it will be easier for them to trace each device back to its rightful owner.

"There is more hope of getting that phone back," Sidhu says.

Don't confront potential thieves 

If you do decide to use a tracking app and find yourself in a situation where you have located your phone, Sidhu says to call the police.

Don't confront suspected phone thieves. A Toronto police officer says call law officials instead. (CBC )
"Don't confront the individuals if you feel it is unsafe or do not put yourself in an unsafe situation," she advises.

If police know the potential thieves are in the area, Sidhu says they will come to help. 

"It's a low priority," she says, "but if somebody has the stolen possession right there, then they will respond as soon as possible."

And if the person who has your phone is willing to return it to you, Sidhu recommends taking safety precautions. "Meet up in a public place and let someone know where you are," she says.

Learn to let it go

In the end, if the police can't or won't help find your missing phone, tech analyst Levy says you should just let your insurance plan cover the loss — and if you don't have insurance, the best thing to do is accept your phone is gone.

"Yes, you don't want to lose a phone that costs multiple hundreds of dollars," Levy says. "[But] I'd rather lose a phone than my life."


  • An earlier version of this story said that your device's IMEI number can be found on your battery. It is actually located on the device underneath the battery.
    Jun 17, 2015 1:53 PM ET