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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.

A good app for safeguarding your entire device is MyBackup Pro ($5), which backs up every file on your gadget and saves it to your SD Card or to an online storage service. If you save the backup data to an SD Card, make sure to keep the card in a safe place, and don't use it as your primary storage. That way, if your device disappears forever, you can just plug the SD Card into your new gadget and restore all of your lost information.

iOS owners have it slightly easier. Every time you sync your iPhone or iPad to iTunes, you create a backup of your device on your computer. The backups contain all of your app data, as well as your settings, pictures, music, movies, and books. Restoring an iDevice is as easy as plugging it in and selecting Restore. iOS 5, which Apple had not yet released as we went to press with this issue, should automatically sync your phone or tablet via iCloud, Apple's upcoming personal online storage service. Until iCloud arrives, you will have to sync your data manually.

Recovering a Lost Gadget

If the worst does happen and you lose your phone, tablet, or laptop, don't panic. Just take a deep breath, and then follow these steps to hunt it down and protect yourself.

Change all of your passwords: This is the very first thing you should do after losing any device containing valuable data. Start with your email password--once thieves have access to your email, they can easily break into all of your other online accounts by resetting your various website passwords.

While you're at it, now might be a good time to revisit your approach to passwords, making them stronger--and easier to remember in the process. Want help? See PCWorld's tips for building better passwords.

File a police report: Once you have changed your account passwords, file a police report for your missing tech. Be sure to mention any identifying features (say, engravings or other customizations), as they will help other people recognize your device. You might also want to alert any local pawnshops in case someone tries to sell it for a quick buck, though this step may be time-consuming.

Track your gadget: If you have in­­stalled recovery software on your gear, activate it and use it to gauge your device's location. For most tracking products, this means logging on at the service's website and tracking your wayward gadget via the control panel. At this point, it's entirely up to you whether to pursue your device or just give it up for lost and wipe it remotely.

On iOS, a remote wipe will erase all content on the device. Wiping an Android phone or tablet will clear most of the user data, but SD Cards and other pieces of external media will remain untouched; keep that in mind if you store a lot of critical information on your SD Card.


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