Calling all cell-phone losers


We’ve all had it happen: A co-worker or family member heads out for a few hours. You call them on their cell phone to relay a message or ask them to pick up a gallon of milk, only to hear the distinctive sound of their phone’s ringtone coming from down the hall.

At the Coastal Point, that sound is likely to be a bit of classic rock or, around the holidays, go something like… “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch…” And it will be coming from Point Publisher Susan Lyons cell phone, which spends almost as much time in her office, by itself, as it does out on the road.

Now, losing track of a cell phone isn’t exactly uncommon, as much as most of us keep them by our sides these days. Today’s cell phones are so small that it’s easy to overlook them on a desk or assume they’re already in your purse or pocket. And, when you’ve just left your phone behind at work or in your car, they’re usually found quickly enough, with a little hunting or a quick call from another line.

But what happens when your phone is really, really lost?

Well, Susan had the chance to find out recently, when she left her phone behind while on a shopping trip. The kind shopper who found it was nice enough to drive it home with her, to another state, where she was when she contacted Susan to let her know the phone had been found. Of course, it was a couple hours’ drive to pick up the phone, or, alternatively, a few days in the mail. That meant Susan was without a phone for at least a few days.

So, everyone in the office was told to call Susan at an alternative number if we needed her, and Susan was without a way to get many of her regular incoming calls, or access her voicemail.

I have to say that I’ve never personally lost a cell phone. (Knock on wood.) I have, however, had cell phones that were on my wireless account go missing – some presumed stolen. So, I’ve been through this situation a few times, and I had some recommendations for Susan, and for anyone who ever loses their cell phone:

(1) Call your wireless carrier. Immediately.

Wireless service providers offer a 24/7 hotline for their users to call at any point that they’ve determine their phone is truly lost or stolen. There’s a reason for that. Just like with your credit card, debit card and check book, thieves – be they the person who stole your phone or a dishonest person who finds it – can take advantage of your cell phone to garner valuable items and services, on your tab. And, just like with a stolen credit card, you limit your liability for those charges when you notify your carrier.

So, once you’ve completed a solid preliminary search for the missing phone and determine it’s not in your car, at the restaurant where you ate lunch, on your desk at work or between the sofa cushions, you want to call that number. When you do, your carrier will cut off service to the lost phone, ensuring that anyone who finds it can’t use it to make calls overseas (an expensive proposition, especially if they’re organized enough to start selling the use of your phone to others…); use up your precious minutes, and then some; download music, games, software or data (likely at a high rate of cost to you); or set up a mobile-phone-based payment that could lead to charges for all sorts of services or items landing on your wireless bill.

Now, best-case scenario, you left your phone at a restaurant or shop that might call a friend or family member who’s in your cell phone’s contact list. Or maybe the person who spotted it on the sidewalk will drop it off at your carrier’s local office, where they can get in touch with you.

If you’ve called your carrier to report your phone lost, when you get it back – as Susan did within a few days – you can have service restored to it, with your same phone number and everything. If it’s gone for good, at least you’re protected from the potential consequences of someone else running around with your phone line in their pocket.

The one other thing you may want to consider when making this call is to differentiate between “lost,” as in “I can’t find it and nobody else is likely to, either” and “stolen,” as in “I think my morally challenged acquaintance may be calling Nigeria right now.”

If you think you’ve just misplaced your phone and might get it back without untoward consequences, you may want to emphasize to your carrier that it’s lost. Reporting a phone stolen can get the phone permanently blacklisted from ever being used for wireless service again. That’s what you want when a thief or recipient of stolen goods ends up with your phone. It’s not what you want when you find your phone in the bathroom three days after you reported it stolen. Check with your carrier to see exactly what their procedures are and which is the most suitable for your particular circumstances.

And while you’re reporting the loss, consider whether you need to make a police report. If you suspect theft, a call to local police could get you your phone back, or it could lead police to a habitual thief who’s stolen your phone and plenty more. The loss of a free phone may feel like an inconsequential crime, but such crimes are hardly uncommon and may be the tip of the iceberg on a thief’s résumé.

If your phone was set up to automatically upload photos taken with it or send you a copy of all e-mails sent out, you may also want to check your online account to see if the thief – or opportunistic finder – has uploaded pictures of themselves and their friends or revealed their identity through e-mails sent from your phone. There have been several tales of expensive phones returned to their owners after the people who ended up with them tracked down the people in photos or the e-mails that were uploaded after the phones were lost or stolen.

If you’re really determined to get your missing phone back, you may also want to encourage police investigating a theft to get in contact with your carrier, to see if they can use the phone’s geo-location reporting – required for 911 purposes these days and an option for GPS-type service in some phones – to find out where the phone is now. Most carriers won’t offer a customer the location of a missing phone, but they will cooperate with a police investigation in some cases, and it’s possible that technology could help track down a stolen phone.

(2) Think about the security of your information.

As cell phones get “smarter,” they’ve become more likely to contain more and more of your personal information. From the contact information stored in there for the people you call to your appointments and personal notes, you’ll want to scrutinize what was on your missing phone and decide if any of it is vulnerable to exploitation.

If you’re not worried about a stranger knowing how to reach your friends and family, and if you didn’t have your credit card or Social Security number – or any proprietary corporate e-mails or embarrassing pictures – stored on your phone, you probably don’t have to worry further about this problem.

But if you’re concerned and you have the right phone and the right set of tools, you can potentially wipe you phone’s memory remotely. This is most likely to be an option if you got a smartphone through your company and they have numerous similar phones deployed via an “enterprise” solution. If that sounds like your situation, check with your IT person to see if they can do a remote wipe of your phone.

If you’ve got a smartphone but you don’t have an enterprise situation backing you up, this is probably not an option for you. However, when you replace your phone you may want to look into software and services that are available to install on your individual phone that will allow you to wipe your own phone remotely, should you ever again lose it. Most of these are inexpensive and will let you erase sensitive data in just a few minutes.

Finally, even “feature phones” sometimes have online access to their stored information. If you ever used your carrier’s online backup for your phone’s contacts, etc., you will want to check the online service to see if it offers remote wiping and take advantage of that if it does.

With all that said, realize that – assuming anyone even finds your phone and that you don’t work for a super-secret government agency or outrageously competitive corporation – the average person who doesn’t endeavor to return it will most likely sell, pawn or use it themselves, rather than trying to use whatever information you might have left on it.

(3) Consider what you want to do about your immediate cell phone service needs.

If you think you might get your phone back, the best solution for your immediate communication needs may be to get a temporary phone. This can be any phone compatible with your existing carrier. If you’re on AT&T and you or a friend have recently upgraded to a new phone, that old phone you didn’t throw away or donate can easily serve as your temporary phone.

Ideally, if you have it handy when you report your other phone lost, you can have your service switched right over to the temporary phone and have only minimal downtime on your service. You’ll be able to receive calls, make calls and check voicemail, all as if you were using your missing phone.

When you call, the carrier will likely ask for the unique ID of the new phone, which is usually on a sticker below the battery. On some carriers, with that number, you can even switch your own service to the new phone, via their Web site. And if you’re on a carrier such as AT&T that uses SIM cards in its phones, it can be as easy as getting a new SIM card from your local store, having it programmed to your account and plugging it into your temporary phone.

What do you do if you don’t have an old phone handy to be your temporary replacement? You may want to investigate your carrier’s pay-as-you-go offerings. These phones – usually costing around $20 to $30 – are found at many electronics stores, big-box department stores and drug stores. Since it’s just a temporary phone, you’re not worried about features, colors and the other things you use to select a full-time phone. It’s the next thing to disposable.

Once you get the pay-as-you-go substitute, you can make that call or visit to your carrier to have your existing number and account switched over. Be careful, though, as picking up the wrong brand of pay-as-you-go phone will render it useless for this purpose. Check online if you want to confirm whether a particular phone will work as a temporary replacement on your post-billed account.

Finally, if you’re thinking about going without a cell phone until you’re sure yours is gone or until you’ve saved up to replace it, consider just a few of the basic reasons why people keep cell phones these days.

If you get in an accident or your car falters while you’re out and about, will you be able to call for help? Will you be able to access your roadside assistance service without your phone? (Many associated with wireless carriers require you to show your phone.) Will it be OK if you’re 20 minutes late without calling if you get stuck in traffic? Will it be OK if you can’t reach someone while you’re on the road or they can’t reach you? Will people who don’t know you’ve lost your phone assume you’re ignoring their calls?

If you’re not concerned about any of those possible problems, you can certainly put off replacing your phone, particularly if you know the method for accessing your voicemail from a landline. If you prefer to always be prepared, a temporary phone could be your best bet.

(4) Consider a permanent replacement.

One reason I advocate finding or buying a phone for a temporary replacement of your lost cell phone is that until you’re pretty sure you’re not going to get the phone back, you don’t want to invest the kind of money in a replacement that you’re going to have to if you buy a new phone that is a replica or upgrade from your lost one.

I know – you’re thinking you’ll just call the carrier and tell them your phone has been lost, and they’ll send you out another one of those $50 phones you got when you signed up for their service. But as anyone who’s ever lost a cell phone can tell you, it’s rarely that easy or inexpensive.

Most of us get our phones when we sign up for service with a new carrier or upgrade to a new phone when we renew our contracts every year or two. Many people don’t realize how much of a deal they’re getting when they get that phone – often a discount of $100 or more. That’s a carrier subsidy – an enticement to get you to sign up for that two-year contract by giving you a phone for much less than you would otherwise have had to pay.

If you have to replace that phone at a time when you’re not due to renew your contract, it’s likely you’ll pay the full retail value of whatever phone you pick as a replacement. For the highest-end smartphones, that could be $800 or more. Those “free” phones and their $50 brethren, they could cost you $100, $150 or $200. You can try to negotiate a better deal with your carrier if you’re a loyal customer, but it’s most likely you’ll be told you have to pay full price or that you’ll be offered $25 or $50 off, depending on where you are in your contract.

If you’re faced with a $400 charge to replace your lost phone with a like model, you may want to stick with that temporary phone until you’re due for a subsidized replacement under your existing contract. Six, eight or 12 months down the road, it’s likely a newer version of your phone, or another upgrade option, will be available for a similar price that you paid for the lost one.

You may also want to consider purchasing a used phone via eBay, since used phones often offer some great deals on current or just older than cutting-edge technology at a good price. But buyer beware on such purchases, since eBay is one location commonly used by thieves to try to get rid of a stolen or lost-and-found phone, to the buyer’s everlasting remorse. An honest seller of a used cell phone should be able to provide a potential buyer with that unique identifying number the carrier attaches to a particular phone, which you can then use to check with your carrier to make sure the phone has not been blacklisted as stolen or for non-payment of wireless charges.

(5) Prepare for the next time.

I know – you’re thinking to yourself, “I’ve just replaced that expensive phone. I’m never going to let that happen to me again!” Well, if you’re the sort of person who loses your cell phone once, it’s likely that you’re the sort who will lose it again. So, the real lesson to take away from the inconvenience and wallet-related heartbreak of losing a cell phone is to do your best to prevent it happening ever again and to ensure that, if it does happen again, you’re in the best position you could possibly be in.

To that end, consider the handset insurance offered through your carrier. You’re looking at paying about $$3 to $5 per month for typical coverage for a handset, which usually includes coverage for accidental damage (including water-related damage, in some cases, thankfully) and theft or loss. Check the individual policy you’re being offered to ensure it covers the instances you think you might need. Some don’t cover water-related damage. Others won’t cover theft or loss. Most have a $50 deductible that will be your end cost for a replacement, with a limit of one or two replacements per year.

Many people advise against such coverage, but they often consider only the out-of-pocket cost of their new cell phone when doing so. Weighing a $5-per-month policy against a $50 original cost for that phone doesn’t fully tell the story of what happens when you need to replace that phone and it’s going to cost you $250 to do so. In many cases, with insurance you’re getting a refurbished version of your same phone, but it’s often a better deal having spent $60 per year to know you’ll cap your further loss at $50 from a deductible and not $250 more. If you’re dealing with phones costing $400 or more at a retail level, buying handset insurance can be a no-brainer.

Before you make that decision to buy insurance through your carrier, also check your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy to see if it already covers the loss, theft or damage of a cell phone. Many won’t, but if yours does, it’s only smart to make sure your phone is listed on your policy and what is, and isn’t, covered.

Next, once you’ve got that replacement phone, consider investing in software that will back up the data on your phone and wipe it remotely. Back-up software will save you time in restoring your contact list, e-mail accounts and other data. Some software resides online and will allow you to regularly sync your data with remote servers that can be accessed from any computer. Other software resides on your home or office computer and can be used when hooking up your phone, and its replacement, with suitable cables or via a wireless connection.

If you have a smartphone with a GPS chip inside, you may also want to consider installing software that functions as a sort of “Lo-Jack” for cell phones, sending out a location notification to your e-mail under certain criteria, such as being moved from a given location or failing to input a particular password. That location could help you track down a lost phone by narrowing down its location or in retrieving a stolen phone with a location you could offer to police.

Lastly, you may want to re-think how you deal with your personal information. If the loss of a cell phone put sensitive information at risk, you may want to reconsider storing such information on a phone in the future, or at encrypting it so it cannot be used without your personal password. Many phones also offer the option of password protection before they can be operated, and that step will minimize the chance that brief access to your phone will offer your information up to whoever happens across it.

You may also want to consider making backups of your personal data on a variety of devices, so you’re not without it should you lose your phone. Keeping that payment confirmation number or crucial proposal document on your laptop could save you if you lose your phone by traveling. Backing up your photos online – preferably automatically – will ensure none of your precious moments are lost.

All these things you have to think about when dealing with a lost or stolen phone are an indication of just how much of a headache it can be when it happens to you. Preparing for the possibility and knowing what to do if it happens can make a trying circumstance much less of a problem for you, and those who will have to try to reach you when your mobile lifeline is in parts, or hands, unknown.