We've all been there. Even your Intrepid Engineer has done it. You're having a perfectly lovely day. You decide you want to check your email, so you reach for your phone and...
...where's my phone?
...WHERE'S MY $#%%!@*^& PHONE?!?!?
Oh no, you've lost your phone. Now what?
Well, if you've got an iPhone, you run to your desktop or laptop computer, fire up Find My iPhone, look at the map, annnnnd...oh, there it is. You must've left it on your locker at the gym. No big deal, jump in the car and sure enough, you and your phone are soon reunited. (ed note: this actually happened for me)
If you've got an Android phone (or a Windows, Linux or Mac laptop) you use the free Prey Project Anti-Theft app and it works largely the same way.
But wait, you say, I never set up Find My iPhone or Prey! Well, then you're kinda hosed. So go ahead and set these tools up NOW. They're free and pretty easy to use. And they'll let you remotely track where your phone (or laptop!) is at the moment, like these brave, idiotic, yet luckily (VERY luckily) triumphant guys. (ed note: seriously, don't ever try to hunt down a phone thief yourself, it's dangerous, and a good way to get hurt or killed - call the police instead!) And you can even lock it down (or wipe it entirely) if it's been stolen!
Nervous parents: yes you can "spy" on your kids this way, too. Or more politely termed, you can "keep an eye on them." There's both good and bad reasons to do this, just bear in mind that technology can be an aide for good parenting, but not a substitute for it. And remember that your kids probably know how to disable it better than you do!
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Postscript: obviously how helpful the police really can be in recovering your phone or laptop depends entirely on the local police, and even the officer you speak with. Most are overworked professionals with a long backlog, and by the time they'd get to your case, your phone is long gone. But like engineers, most cops do like easy problems to solve, and when you've got a GPS device telling you exactly where it is on a map, that's pretty easy! So as soon as you've fired up Find My iPhone/Prey and determined someone else has taken your phone, it's definitely worth calling the police first! Tell them you know exactly where it is, and would like an officer to accompany you to retrieve it if possible.