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

UPDATE: Since the release of iOS7, Apple have made it impossible for a thief to reset/format 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. This article is not nearly as relevant as it once was, but it still has some useful info. 

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 lock screen password activated, which meant that the thief had full access to its 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.
  • IloggedintoiCloud and used the Find My iPhone feature to see if the iPad had shown up at all. It was my first timeactuallyusingiCloud 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 its exact location (like which apartment it was in). This would have led 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 lock screen 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 lock screen 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:

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Leave a Reply

96 Comments

  • Reply igor January 9, 2013 at 12:14 AM

    super

  • Reply Randi April 3, 2013 at 5:45 PM

    I just had my iPad stolen from my car yesterday. It sucks. I basically did the exact things you did but the person who stole it has not connected to wifi so I haven’t received a notice. I have already locked my iPad prior to reading your article.

    A few things I would add is prior to leaving the house with your iPad I would have a password on Restrictions therefore a person can not reformat your iPad. I don’t know that I had one on mine (I don’t believe I did).

    Remove your home address from your contact list, its typically under In Case of Emergency. If you keep your calendar on your iPad they now know your schedule.

    • Reply Era Breganaku December 19, 2015 at 6:17 PM

      I lost my ipad.Find my iphone is off.My ipad is locked.What should i do?If the person who found it formats my ipad will my Apple ID be saved?

  • Reply Andy May 18, 2013 at 4:32 PM

    I think you’re continuing the react emotionally. Getting something stolen sucks, but a $500 piece of electronics is cheap compared to the cost & hassle of identity theft or the risk of violence when comforting a thief. Be careful w/ your stuff, use Find My iPhone/iPad, see if your homeowners/renters insurance will cover it or if it’s lower than your deductable and/or pay for insurance from your mobile carrier if you’re that concerned about replacement cost and dear lord DO USE A LOCKSCREEN. If you accidentally lose it you can send it a message & get it back if a nice person finds it otherwise you’re getting a forced upgrade to the latest & greatest device while still in control of your personal data & health which is what is far more valuable than a few hundred bucks. Getting something stolen sucks but your revenge fantasy is a very bad idea

    • Reply Toma May 18, 2013 at 4:35 PM

      Fair comment. Everything except the revenge fantasy part. It’s not like I have some ninjas on standby. My tax dollars pay for police, they’ll do fine.

      • Reply Carl October 23, 2013 at 5:03 AM

        This is info great stuff for thieves as well as the victims. Any criminals seeing this will say OK I will erase it with iTunes then.

      • Reply Tina December 9, 2013 at 3:02 PM

        Ha! I live in Toronto, and just called the police when I tracked my stolen iPad (30 mins ago) they won’t budge! I hope you’re in a better place :)

        • Reply Amanda December 19, 2013 at 2:58 AM

          I have a question if I lost my ipad or iPod and I had find my iPod/ipad and the location is off. An I still be able to find it

    • Reply Brent June 15, 2013 at 1:08 AM

      Very true, I agree with this wholeheartedly. My only qualm is whether the criminal has malicious intent and wants to spread your photos around without any permission from you. In my case, I haven’t lost any significant data, because all of it is also on my Mac, but I would not like for the thief to have access to any of my pictures, music (my original music), or notes.

      • Reply Laurada August 30, 2015 at 12:33 PM

        Some of us consider stealing in itself to be malicious intent. In this case, the taking of what does not belong to you was done on purpose and even premeditated. It was planned out how to take property from others with the malicious premeditation of planning how to access the unowned property of said thief.

        • Reply Laurada August 30, 2015 at 12:37 PM

          The other malicious intent was how to lie about it after stealing it after breaking and entering in the victims vehicle.

    • Reply Zagnit April 9, 2014 at 3:36 PM

      Nay, I’m gonna go with the revenge ” reality.” Thieves suck, so shortening their lifespan is something we truly should consider in society today.

  • Reply melike May 22, 2013 at 6:28 PM

    If lost iphone, ipad and ipod trust me I won’t bother myself. I let it go…. but if I use find my iphone and go to the spot where my phone is what will be a consequence or a reaction from the thief ?
    One thing he knows, he will go jail if if he get caught by a police. He will do anything possible to get away. May be he will kill you for 500.00 piece of junk.
    Report to the police and do anything possible from home and don’t confront with thief. That it …..

  • Reply chelsea May 30, 2013 at 5:53 PM

    my iphone got stolen the other day i didnt read this article aswell before the phone was wiped i put the password on it through icloud. anyway they did connect to my internet and facebook. but have been offline since and the location was at a dan murpheys which in australia is liquor store so cant do much about it :( so they havent logged on since my question is can they wipe or reformat with a password on it from icloud?? thanks!

    • Reply Toma May 31, 2013 at 11:13 AM

      I’m not really sure Chelsea. I’m pretty sure that iCloud requests a password before they can do anything, so without knowing your password they shouldn’t be able to much. They’ve probably reset the phone and that will be the end of it.

      • Reply Raiden February 17, 2014 at 3:50 AM

        I cloud dose nothing for lost Appel devices

        • Reply Duke November 25, 2015 at 4:41 AM

          Apple Does nothing for lost Appel devices! had my 4th 128GB iPad taken. this is getting old. I’ll never buy an appel device again.

  • Reply blue June 8, 2013 at 5:35 PM

    yesterday someone stole my brothers ipad he use icloud but remembered that it was turned off and he also has the screen locked will it still locate the person when turned on it has to be a better way to protect people when buying costly ipads the company has to step up for there
    customers and do more to get the devices back

    • Reply Toma June 8, 2013 at 5:38 PM

      If iCloud is off then it won’t work. With the screen lock on it’s another problem because they can’t access the internet with the iPad. They will have to reset it, meaning no chance of recovery.

  • Reply blue June 8, 2013 at 6:19 PM

    his ipad was turned off but he still used his icloud and yes he has the screen locked do he have a chance at getting it back he also turned on an app that will make a very loud sound what can we do to get the company to help more

    • Reply Toma June 8, 2013 at 6:25 PM

      If it’s a 3G iPad then iCloud will still work when they turn it on. If it’s Wi-Fi only it won’t because they can’t connect to WiFi without getting past the lockscreen. There is nothing Apple will do to help without a police warrant.

  • Reply blue June 8, 2013 at 6:50 PM

    thank you

  • Reply deem June 12, 2013 at 10:59 PM

    Please i need your help , i lost my iphon 4 and iphon 5 few days ago , both have a louckscreen password , and both are the same apple ID ! and i cloud is on , but when i try to call them it’s all powered off , i don’t want to get it back but i m worry about my privet photos , is there a way that they can open my iphon ? As i told u i already had a password on both of them , but i want to ereas my privet stuff or to make sure that they won’t be able to see it, please please please please i m dining

    Help please

    • Reply Toma June 12, 2013 at 11:02 PM

      If the lockscreens are protected as you say, then no, there is no way for them to do it. Log into iCloud and set it to email you when your iPhones come online. You can also set it to format if you want. You don’t need to do anything else. Unless they are some crazy hacker types who stole it, which is not likely, your data is safe.

  • Reply deem June 12, 2013 at 11:37 PM

    Dear toma , i already stoped my SIM cards so they can’t access to the same3g , but i m afraid if they take it to some hackers which there are alot of them here in Saudi arabia , also i don’t have laptop to go to icloud .com , i m using my galaxy tap which can’t access to the icloud .com, i m really afraid it’s so privet photos and here there are too many bad people they like to share girls photos, as i m not from this country and i m a foreigner here so i don’t know what to do, especially there are no popular internet coffee for ladies here, i m really so sad and thinking to kill myself , please help please

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