How to Track and Recover Your Stolen Gadgets For Free

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As more and more of our daily work and social activity moves to mobile devices – laptops, smartphones, and tablets – the potential for theft grows.  It’s all too easy for a thief to snatch a laptop or iPhone from a table when you step away momentarily, and then sell it for a quick buck on Craigslist or eBay, or even keep it for themselves.

Fortunately, there are free tools we can use to silently track and help recover stolen Macs, PCs, iPhones, iPads, and Android phones. Here’s a quick primer on how to get set up.

How to Track and Recover an iPhone or iPad For Free Using Find My iPhone

Find My iPhone is a free service provided by Apple to all iPhone and iPad owners as part of the new iCloud service.  It was previously included in the $99/year MobileMe service, but Apple made it available free of charge starting last year.

Setting up Find My iPhone is easy, and all you need to know is your Apple ID (email address) and password.  This is the same email and password you would use to purchase content from the iTunes Store or apps from the App Store.  If you’ve forgotten what your Apple ID is or if you even have one, visit the Apple ID website.

Click here for instructions on how to set up iCloud on your iPhone or iPad.

You’re now set up with Find My iPhone and your device can be tracked using GPS (iPhone), approximate location via nearby cell towers (iPad w/ 3G), or via WiFi (WiFi-only iPad).  GPS provides the most consistent and accurate location data, while 3G-enabled iPads give an approximate, triangulated location (typically within a few hundred meters) based on nearby cell towers.  WiFi-only iPads must be connected to a WiFi network in order to be tracked, but if they are, the location is typically very accurate.

But we’re not done yet.  In order to provide an extra level of security in case your device is stolen, we need to prevent a thief from being able to quickly go into Accounts and turn off Find My iPhone, which will undo the previous steps.

To prevent that from happening, we’re going to turn on Parental Controls and disable account changes in Mail, Contacts, and Calendars.  In order to make changes to your accounts or turn off Find My iPhone, a 4-digit PIN will be required.

  1. From the home screen, tap Settings
  2. Tap General
  3. Tap Restrictions
  4. Tap Enable Restrictions
  5. Enter a 4-digit PIN of your choosing.  Ideally, you would use a unique PIN that only you know, and not the same one you use to unlock your device.
  6. Re-enter the PIN to confirm.
  7. From the Restrictions page, tap Accounts
  8. Tap Don’t Allow Changes so that it is checked.
  9. Press the home button to return to the home screen.

All done!  To track your device, visit the iCloud website at www.icloud.com and log in using your Apple ID.  You may also track it from another (such as a friend’s) iPhone or iPad with the Find My iPhone app, available for free on the App Store.

How To Track and Recover a Mac, PC, or Android Phone For Free Using Prey Project

Prey Project is a free, open-source application that’s loaded with features for securing, tracking, and recovering your stolen Mac, PC, or Android Phone.  Once installed, it runs silently in the background, waiting for you to report your device as missing so it can launch into action.

Prey Project can use any combination of the following to help you find out who the thief is, what they’re doing, and eventually locate and recover your gear:

  • Geolocation using GPS (if available) or nearest WiFi access points
  • Detailed network information such as MAC addresses and public/privateIP addresses
  • Screenshots of the desktop
  • List of modified files
  • List of running programs
  • Photos taken with the built-in camera on your laptop

This information gets compiled into reports generated at intervals ranging from 10 to 40 minutes.  The reports are then sent to your email address and made available in your account on the Prey Project website.  Armed with these reports, you can then contact the police for help in recovering your stolen goods.

To get started, visit the Prey Project website and download the appropriate installer for your system.  The installer will walk you through setting up your account and linking your device to it.  The whole process takes maybe 3-4 minutes, and once it’s set, you never need to touch it again.

If and when someone makes the mistake of snatching your gadgets, just visit the website from any computer, log into your account, and mark your device as missing.  Prey Project will immediately get to work, and using its detailed reports, you can hopefully get your stuff back before it’s too late.