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How to Remotely Track Any Lost Smartphone, Tablet, or PC

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Whether your device was stolen or simply lost, you can remotely track, lock, and wipe it. Don’t wait until you’ve lost your hardware to think about this — these features need to be enabled ahead of time.

This requires that the device is powered on and has a connection to the Internet. This is easy if you’re tracking a phone with a data connection, but harder if you’re tracking a laptop that may be offline or powered off.

iPhones, iPads, and Macs

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Apple’s “Find My” services are integrated into iPhones, iPads, and even their Mac computers. Enable it in your device’s iCloud options and you can track down your device from the iCloud website. You can also mark it as lost, lock it, and wipe it remotely.

Whatever you think of Apple, their solution is the best. When you put an iPhone or iPad into “lost mode,” iCloud will start tracking its movements over time so you can see a complete history. This also survives a factory reset, so you can track and remotely manage an iPhone or iPad even if the thief resets it. Apple won’t activate iPhones and iPads if they’re marked as lost.

You can also remotely lock a Mac — the Mac will immediately shut down and the thief will have to enter a firmware password to boot it. They won’t be able to boot any operating system without the password you set remotely. You can also remotely wipe any iOS device or Mac if you have especially sensitive data stored on them.

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Android Phones and Tablets

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Android’s built-in Android Device Manager allows you to track, lock, and wipe lost Android phones and tablets. You must enable this feature on each Android device you own by launching the Google Settings app, tapping Android Device Manager, and activating it.

After it’s enabled, you can visit the Google Play website, click the gear icon, and select Android Device Manager. You’ll see the location of the device on a map. Unlike Apple’s solution, Android Device Manager will be wiped after a factory reset — a thief can reset your device and you won’t be able to track it down. Android Device Manager also won’t monitor a complete history of a lost device’s movements — it only fetches the location of the device when you sign in. It discards any location data when you sign out.

Android also allows for third-party tracking solutions, some of which are more powerful. For example, Avast!’s Anti-Theft app can be installed onto the system partition if you have root access, so it will survive a factory reset. However, writing a new ROM to the device — or re-flashing the original ROM — will erase the tracking software.

Android Lost allows you to start tracking a device remotely, even if you never set up tracking software ahead of time. Other tracking solutions offer more powerful features like the ability to take photos with the phone’s camera or listen in on the phone’s surroundings with its microphone.

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Windows Phones

Microsoft’s Windows Phone includes a tracking solution named Find My Phone. Tap Settings > Find My Phone on your Windows Phone to configure it. You can then visit the Windows Phone website and click Find My Phone in the menu at the top-right corner of the screen to remotely track, lock, and erase it.

Like Google’s Android Device Manager, the Find My Phone feature can be disabled if someone with the phone performs a factory reset.

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Windows PCs and Tablets

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Microsoft doesn’t offer an integrated way to track lost Windows PCs and tablets. You’ll need a third-party computer tracking solution — such as Prey — for this. Prey offers a free plan, so you won’t have to pay anything if you just want basic tracking. This software must be installed and configured ahead of time. If your device is lost, you can sign into the service’s website to remotely track and lock it.

Such services just aren’t as powerful as what Apple offers — there’s no way to remotely lock the device with a BIOS or UEFI firmware password that will prevent it from turning on again, for example. Simply reinstalling Windows or booting another operating system on the PC or tablet will be enough to eliminate the tracking software.

You can’t use this trick to track a Windows RT device like the Surface RT or Surface 2, as Windows RT doesn’t allow you to install third-party desktop software. You may be able to install a device-tracking app like Windows Location Tracker from the Windows Store. We didn’t test how well this particular application works, but it won’t be able to remotely lock or wipe your device due to the limitations placed on Windows Store apps. These apps are toys that can offer GPS tracking at most.

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Linux PCs

As with Windows PCs, you’ll have to use a third-party software program to track a lost PC running Linux. Prey also runs on Linux, so you can use the same software. The same limitations apply — it’s just a software program running on your computer, so you can’t remotely set a BIOS password to lock the entire PC down. If an attacker boots or installs another operating system, you won’t be able to track the Linux PC down.

Chromebooks

Chrome OS doesn’t provide an integrated lost-device-tracking solution, either. Some software packages promise to track and locate lost Chromebooks, but they’re generally commercial products marketed to large organizations. For example, GoGuardian promises to aid you in tracking and recovering stolen Chromebooks, but it’s targeted at schools rolling out large numbers of Chromebooks.

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Google and Microsoft have promised they’ll be adding iPhone-like “kill switches” in future versions of Android and Windows Phone to deter phone theft. Microsoft is also working on bringing Windows Phone and Windows 8 together, so perhaps the next version of Windows will include a built-in tracking feature.

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 07/14/14