What NOT to do if your iPhone or iPad is lost or stolen

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UPDATE: Since the release of iOS 7, Apple have made it impossible for a thief to use your iDevice without your iCloud Username and Password. This means to secure your device it's important that you do set up and use iCloud on it. 

A little over two weeks ago I had my iPad stolen. It was  peak hour on a Saturday morning and I had found a park with rockstar written all over it, meaning it was in the heart of the city and literally 40 metres from where I needed to be. With a Mick Jagger-like swagger I strutted off, leaving my car alone for no more than twenty minutes. Upon my triumphant return from getting a haircut, missing from my car was my 32GB WiFi iPad, which had been hidden in a baby bag that surely, I thought, nobody would ever steal.

Having this sort of thing happen to you is not common and it can effect people differently, but the one reaction we all feel when it happens is a strange sense of panic and surrealism. The panic leads us to think and act irrationally, which is precisely what I did.

If this happens to you take a deep pause and ignore every instinct you have. I reacted emotionally and lost all chance of recovering my iPad.

So what did I do?

The only possible defense I had installed on my WiFi-only iPad was Apple's iCloud. Due to my iPad not having 3G iCloud would only allow it be located when it was online, which meant I had to wait for the thief to take it home (or sell it) and for someone to start browsing the web on the device without formatting it.

As the iPad almost never left my house I had no lockscreen password activated, which meant that the thief had full access to it's contents and my personal information (photos, address book, calendar etc). This is probably the thing that caused me to over-react the most. Having some scumbag looking at your most intimate family photos is an infuriating thought.

In my emotional state of surrealism here's what I did:

  • I immediately went home and changed every password I had (Gmail, Facebook, Live, Path, Twitter.......). This took me about 15 minutes.
  • I logged into iCloud and used the Find My iPhone feature to see if the iPad had shown up at all. It was my first time actually using iCloud and I found that it gave me only a few, limited options.
    • I could request an email to be sent to me to let me know when the iPad went online.
    • I could lock the iPad when it went online.
    • I could format the iPad when it went online
    • I could make it ring out loud and send it a message... when it went online!

Fearing any further perusal of my personal information I elected to have the iPad lock itself, email me, and then send a message to the thief, the contents of which I won't disclose.

Almost exactly 48 hours later I received an email from iCloud informing me that the iPad was online and in use. It's location was some 45 minutes from me, and it was only an approximate location which was certainly not as accurate as I needed it to be.

It's important to note that iCloud does not provide an IP address or any other details which will help you actually identify your thief. It basically shows you a map of where the item is and that is all. It's literally like asking someone on the street where the nearest [whatever] is, having them point at a series of two or three buildings and telling you, "It's over there". Big fucking help.

Seeing as I was at work I could do nothing about it and within half an hour the iPad went offline and hasn't come back online since.

The thief's perspective is important

Unfortunately for them many thieves still have their heads in a time when we could steal shit and it was their's forever. Many aren't actually conscious of electronic tracking, or the fact that they can be busted months after they steal something if they're not tech savvy about it.

Consider the sequence of events from the thief's perspective. They went online with this shiny new stolen iPad thinking it was their's and they could use it to their heart's content. If left alone they would have used it for the next few months accumulating all of their own personal and incriminating information on it.

Yet instead of this thief's expectation, the first time they used my iPad it immediately locked itself, made a loud sound and sent them a message effectively saying 'you're busted'. They started to freak out not knowing how to proceed as, at least in this case, they were technically ignorant and became instantly paranoid.

The next and only step for them was to turn the iPad off and get it as far away from them as they could, in all likelihood promptly selling it to a more knowledgeable and tech-savvy buyer who would have instantly formatted it. As I have received no more notifications from iCloud I am certain that this is exactly what happened.

So what were my mistakes and what should I have done?

My biggest mistake was not having patience. Had I allowed the iPad to go online with no immediate consequences to the thief they would have continued to use it as if it was theirs. They most certainly would have used the Facebook and Gmail apps, and considering that both services record our IP addresses and make them available to us (links are at the end of the article) I would have had a twice verified IP address to give to the police.

Then, using iCloud I could have gone to the thief's approximate location with an iPhone or internet connected MAC and discovered the almost exact location of the iPad by watching both dots on the map. Once the dot of the iPhone neared the dot of the iPad I would have been in earshot of the iPad. Once in earshot I could have made the iPad play sounds out loud so as to hopefully discover it's exact location (like which apartment it was in). This would have lead to my telephoning the police, recovering my iPad and serving justice to a thieving piece of shit.

So if you care about recovering your device, what's my advice?

  • Firstly, if you have a wireless-only device ala the iPad or iPod touch (or an iPhone with data turned off) don't use a lockscreen password. The second the thing gets lost or stolen whoever has it won't be able to use it at all and you guarantee that the only way they can use it is to format it, at which point it's gone forever.
  • Make sure you have iCloud setup and activated today. It's free and there is no reason not to use it. Without it or a paid equivalent if you lose your device you'll have a much harder time finding it, and likely won't find it at all.
  • Be patient. Don't do anything yet. It is more likely than not that the thief will go online with it at some point and when they do you want them to have free use of the device. Let them get comfortable and then grab them by the balls.
  • You should be using Gmail. Primarily because it's significantly better than any other webmail service in existence, but also because it records their IP address. Once you have their IP address you can make Gmail log out on the device easily and non-suspiciously.
  • Same goes for Facebook.
  • Get onto the police early.  I had trouble with the police because I was going away for the weekend and didn't have time to report my iPad as stolen. When it showed up and I called them the first thing they asked for was the police report number. Not having one means you will have to file a police report on the spot and it's always a time consuming pain in the ass.
  • Don't rely on Apple for anything. They don't give you an IP address, they don't give you any decent advice, and even though your device's serial number is forever registered to you they still won't tell you who has it. I spoke to a so-called 'Genius' and he advised me as such, followed up by 'Do you know how many iPads get stolen!?!'.  iCloud is the best they will give you, and even then it's second-rate. It doesn't give you exact location information, it doesn't let you access the device remotely, and it doesn't take pictures of whoever is using it. Basically iCloud is a piece of shit and Apple should be embarrassed.

What if you have an internet-connected device?

You should be able to find it pretty quickly. In my case I knew my device was gone within minutes. Using iCloud's Find My iPhone feature I would have found the asshole walking the street with it and taken it back. If your device is internet enabled I DO recommend using a lockscreen password. This way the thief has to carry it with them until they can get somewhere where they can format it meaning you will have time to track them.

In the event that they turn it off they will likely turn it back on to format it so it will show up at their place of residence or a bricks-and-mortar establishment. The only way you won't be able to track it is if the thief turns it off and formats it in recovery mode, which is becoming a common process as thieves become more tech-savvy.

Here are some useful links I recommend reading before you get your shit stolen.

How to activate and use iCloud's Find My Phone feature

How to check who's logged into your Gmail account and force them to logout

How to check who has logged into your Facebook Account

A great paid alternative to iCloud called Prey

If you have a Jailbroken device (and you should!) I recommend installing iGotYa

And lastly, everybody should watch this at least once:

http://youtu.be/U4oB28ksiIo