How To: The Good Samaritan's Guide to Returning Lost Smartphones

The Good Samaritan's Guide to Returning Lost Smartphones

Sometimes, doing the right thing is way more difficult than it should be, like trying to return a lost smartphone. Despite having the best intentions, it's often hard to track down the rightful owner, especially if the device is armed with a passcode.

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On the other hand, there are plenty of people who see an unattended iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S3 as a chance for profit. In 2011 alone, the number of lost and stolen cell phones in America was worth over 30 billion dollars. That's right, billion. That's enough wasted cash to end up in the top ten on Forbes' Billionaires List.

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If you find yourself in possession of a misplaced device, there are several ways to find out who it belongs to and make someone's day. Here are a few tips for all you do-gooders out there.

If There's No Passcode...

Obviously, when a phone is unlocked, you have a lot more options to get the information you need to return it. Sometimes, you can figure out who the rightful owner is just by looking through the contents of the device.

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Check the email application to see if you can find the owner's email address. Once you have it, you can let them know what's going on and send a link to Google Maps directions or an address where they can meet you to get the phone back. This is probably the least intrusive method of reaching a lost phone's owner, assuming you don't go snooping through all their correspondences.

Social Media

Most smartphones will have at least one social media application installed. Whether it be Twitter, Instagram, Flickr or Facebook, you should be able to easily view the name and profile of the original owner (assuming they stay signed in).

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Once you have that information, you can either send them a message from your own social media account or use theirs to let them know you have the device. Take a photo of their phone with your contact information and upload it to their Instagram, or send a friend request to yourself so you can message them on Facebook to set a time to meet.

Recent Contacts

Just like in Law and Order, you should always check the recent contacts list. These contacts can often help you track down the phone's owner (even if they aren't kidnapped or dead). Be proactive and call a few numbers, explain the situation and give them your contact information. And if there's a contact for "Mom" or "Home," try that one first—friends are great, but family will definitely know where to find them.

The Waiting Game

Once someone realizes they've lost their phone, the first thing they will do is call it. I found a lost phone in a taxi a few months ago and made sure to keep the device fully charged and powered on. In a few hours, the phone rang and the owner couldn't have been more pleased. So pleased, in fact, he sent me a bottle of Jameson 12 Year Old Special Reserve. Who says nice guys finish last?

If the Phone Is Locked

For passcode-protected devices, the process can be a little more difficult, but not impossible. It may require a little more work on your part, but here are a few things you can do.

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Passcode Bypass

On the iPhone, you can use bypass the passcode to make a call if the owner doesn't have that option disabled. Hold the Home button to access Voice control (iPhone 4 or earlier) or Siri (4S and 5). If it's enabled, you can place a call without entering a passcode.

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If it works, tell the phone to dial Home, Mom, or Dad. Most people have at least one of these saved as a contact. If not, you can just try common names like John or Kelly and you should eventually be able to call someone.

If you have an Android device in your hands, you can also try using command prompt to unlock it. See this article for more info.

SIM Card

If the device has a SIM card, you can remove it and plug it into a compatible device. Even though the phone is locked, the SIM card and the information on it won't be.

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By placing that SIM in an unlocked phone, you can gain access to information that can help you in returning the device.

Wireless Carrier

Even if the phone is locked, the wireless carrier logo will always be there. Take it to the nearest local store and inform them that it's lost and you want to locate the owner. If you don't trust sales reps, ask them to try and contact the account holder while you're still in the store—just because you're a Good Samaritan doesn't mean they will be.


If worse comes to worst, you can always return lost items to the local police department. There's always a chance the owner has filed a report or will check the lost and found. All they would need to do is verify that the phone belongs to them, and just entering the passcode may be enough. Just note that not a lot of people check the police department and it could just end up sitting there. Once you drop it off, you can't get it back.

Have you ever tracked down the owner of a lost device? Tell us how you did it in the comments below.

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Images via Jim Larson, Alan Levine, Marc Görtz, Brantley Davidson, PC Advisor, WebProNews, Rafe Blandford, Nautiz

1 Comment

If phone (iPhoneX) is locked and there is a visible text message on the phone you can press and hold on the message and you will be able to reply to that text message. Just located owner's friend (in another state!) and got personal email address of owner.

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