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How to Track, Disable, and Wipe a Lost iPhone, iPad, or Mac

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Apple’s phone, tablet, and computer-tracking tools are the best in the business. You can remotely locate your device, disable it with a lock and message that persists through factory resets — the so-called “kill switch” — and wipe it.

These features aren’t enabled by default, so you’ll need to ensure the tracking features are enabled ahead of time if you’d ever like to remotely track, lock, or wipe your iPhone, iPad, or Mac.

Enable Find My iPhone, Find My iPad, or Find My Mac

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The “Find My” features are part of Apple’s iCloud service. To enable this feature, open the Settings app, tap iCloud, and set the Find My iPhone or Find My iPad slider to On. You’ll need to enable this setting on each device you want to track.

If you haven’t set up iCloud on your device, you’ll be prompted to set up an iCloud account here.

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On a Mac, open the System Preferences window (Apple menu > System Preferences), click the iCloud icon, and ensure the Find My Mac box is checked. You’ll be prompted to set up iCloud here if you haven’t already.

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Ensure you set a strong password for your Apple ID. If you set a weak password, someone could log into your account on the iCloud website and remotely lock or wipe your device. This password is important! If you want to change your Apple ID password, you can change it on the My Apple ID website. You’ll have to enter the new password on all your devices afterward.

Track, Lock, and Erase Your Device

To track your device, you can either sign into the iCloud website or use the Find My iPhone app for iPhone or iPad. In spite of its name, the Find My iPhone app and Find My iPhone feature in iCloud can track iPads and Macs as well as iPhones.

We’ll assume you’re using the website here, as you can use the website from any device — whether it’s a Mac, iPad, Windows PC, Chromebook, or Android tablet. Feel free to use the app if you want to do this on an iPhone or iPad.

Sign into either the app or the website with your Apple ID. On the iCloud website, click the Find My iPhone icon.

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The website will display all your devices on a map by default. iCloud still uses Google Maps for this instead of Apple Maps on the web — after all, there’s no web-based version of Apple Maps.

Click the All Devices menu if you’d like to select a specific device. iPads and Macs may be more difficult to track then iPhones. If the iPad or Mac is powered off or doesn’t have an Internet connection, you won’t be able to track its location — however, you can still send wipe or lock commands and iCloud will execute them the next time the device connects. iPhones should be easier to track in real-time, as most iPhones will have a mobile data connection.

find my iphone ipad and mac devices on icloud website

Click a device’s dot on the map and you’ll be able to issue it commands:

  • Play Sound: The Play Sound button will play a two-minute sound on the device. This happens immediately — if the device is offline, the two-minute sound will start playing the next time it comes online. This is ideal if you’ve lost the device somewhere nearby — maybe you don’t know where you left it in your house or perhaps you dropped your iPhone somewhere.
  • Lost Mode (iPhones and iPads): Enable Lost Mode as soon as possible when your device is lost or stolen. Lost Mode allows you to set a new passcode to prevent the thief from using your device. You can also enter a custom message that will be displayed on the device’s lock screen — you could provide details of where you can be reached if someone finds the device. The message will persist even through factory resets on iOS 7. “Activation lock” will also prevent people from activating the device without your original iCloud ID and password, so thieves won’t be able to resell or keep using your device. Lost Mode also enables a location tracking history, so you can sign into the iCloud website and track the device’s movements over time. If the device is currently offline, Lost Mode will be activated the next time it connects.
  • Lock (Macs): Macs don’t have a “lost mode,” but you can remotely lock them. This doesn’t just set a user account password — when the Mac receives the lock command, it will shut down. When someone boots the Mac, it will enter the recovery screen, display a message you’ve entered, and force someone to provide a firmware passcode you remotely set. The Mac will be useless until the passcode is provided. People won’t even be able to boot Windows, Linux, or other operating system on it.
  • Erase: You can also remotely erase the device, removing any sensitive personal or business data. On iOS 7, you can set a phone number and message that will be displayed on the screen after the device is erased so someone can contact you if they find it. The Erase feature should be used as a last resort — in most cases, Lost Mode and Lock should allow you to secure your data and continue remotely tracking your device.

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Whatever you think of Apple, their device-tracking and remote-locking solutions are the best integrated services in the industry. Google’s Android Device Manager doesn’t allow you to flip a “kill switch” that survives a factory reset or view a history of a lost device’s movements. Microsoft and Google don’t provide any integrated way to track and remotely lock Windows PCs or Chromebooks. There are third-party tracking applications available for Windows, but they won’t be able to lock down a PC at the firmware level like Apple’s Mac solution can.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 07/12/14