Found a Lost Phone? How to Return It to Its Owner in 6 Easy Steps

Returning a locked lost phone can feel a lot like stealing one. I’ve found and returned several lost smartphones over the years. But I’ve never needed to break into the contacts list and you shouldn’t either.

Every year, millions lose their phones. In the US, about 50% of lost devices are returned to their owners. The rest get stolen.

How Do You Return a Phone to Its Owner?

Even without access to a contacts list, returning a phone is easy. For the most part, you can reach out to a cellular service provider. But if that fails, there are a few tricks that can help.

Here’s how I returned a lost phone to its owner.

Background: A Study on Lost Phones

Symantec performed a study on phone theft. It randomly dispersed 50 phones within the US and Canada without a lock-screen pattern. Roughly 50% of these phones made their way back to Symantec. Of these, 96% had been accessed for personal details, such as photos, emails, and more.

The moral of the story: Enable the password or screen lock.

However, phones with a locking pattern can still be hacked to reveal your private data. It can also interfere with attempts to return the phone.

For locked phones, there are a few ways to get them back to their owners. The best method is to get the Internet Mobile Equipment Identity, or IMEI, number. The IMEI number can uniquely identify the owner of the phone.

1. Call the Carrier

In my case, the phone’s lock pattern was enabled and traditional bypass methods wouldn’t workβ€”the telltale finger smudges on the screen had been wiped out by tire tracks. After the phone had been dropped, it unfortunately fell beneath the owner’s car

The way to acquire the IMEI (the serial number or ESN works too) of the phone depends on the phone’s make. For the Samsung Galaxy S3 that I picked up, the IMEI number can be found underneath the battery. This isn’t the case on all phones, unfortunately. Most phones no longer have removable batteries.

After jotting down the IMEI, I called the cellular service provider: AT&T. Unfortunately, they could not give me any personal info. I asked customer service to tell the owner that their phone was held at my apartment complex’s main office. Within a few hours, the owner picked up the device.

This method works because the phone’s owner must contact the cellular provider to suspend service. However, if you manage to contact the phone company before the customer realizes their loss, it can then relay your contact information to them.

In my case, the Galaxy S3 didn’t receive cellular signal from within my apartment complex. So waiting until the owner called wasn’t an option.

How to Find an IMEI Number

Here’s the basic process that you may need to go through to return a phone, if you have an IMEI:

  1. Manufacturers sometimes place this underneath the battery, on the side of the device, or on the back.
  2. Call the service provider and supply them with the phone’s information, normally the IMEI.
  3. Leave your contact number with the service provider.
  4. When the owner calls to suspend service, they will receive your contact number.

Returning the Phone Without an IMEI Number

In the event that the IMEI isn’t available and the phone is locked, you can either wait until the owner calls their own phone or you can take matters into your own hands with the tips below.

For a GSM (AT&T and T-Mobile) phone, a phone thief would simply swap out the SIM card and either sell or use the device. Fortunately, you aren’t a thief. If you can’t find an IMEI, serial, or ESN number, you can try other methods.

2. Try Google Assistant or Siri

Google Assistant and Siri are voice-activated digital assistants that can respond to voice commands, even with the Lock Screen engaged. They are also programmed with call functionality, meaning you can tell the assistant to call someone.

To activate the automatic voice calling feature, do the following:

  • For Android phones, say: “Hey Google.”
  • For iPhones, say: “Hey Siri.”
  • Say “Call Mom” or “Call Dad.”

If the phone dials out, you can leave behind a message letting the person know you’ve got their child’s phone. Unfortunately, this only works if the person’s phone is working and if their parent is entered into their contacts.

3. Drop the Phone Off at the Store

AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint all operate brick-and-mortar stores in all fifty states. Each company offers slightly different return policies:

  • T-Mobile: Return the phone to a corporate retail store. T-Mobile’s store locator can find all stores nearby.
  • AT&T: Also accepts lost phones at its corporate retail stores.
  • Verizon: Verizon also returns phones received at its stores. The Verizon store locator tool can help you find the nearest service center in your area.
  • Sprint: Unfortunately, since Sprint merged with T-Mobile, it’s unclear whether you can return a lost phone to a Sprint corporate retail store.

Unfortunately, if the customer isn’t a current subscriber to a cellular plan, the phone will end up at an e-waste facility.

4. The Finger Smudge Method

The oldest, and best known, method of beating the Lock Screen pattern is through tracing finger smudges. Holding the phone up to a light will reveal such patterns, and you can retrace the lines on the screen to beat the lock pattern.

5. Android Debug Method

The Android Debug (ADB) exploit method can also break a phone’s lock pattern. This method requires that you have ADB on your PC. Also, the device must be connected via USB to your PC.

If properly configured, you alter the phone’s gestures.key fileβ€”a serious security problem with older versions of Android. The phone will flip back out of locked mode and you can then access the contacts list. Thieves at this point will factory reset the device. Don’t do that.

On newer Android devices, however, this requires root access.

6. Operating System Exploits

You can also attempt one of the many Lock Screen exploits that exist in different versions of mobile operating systems. Many of these go unpatched, so it’s just a matter of finding the right method. Googling the name of the phone followed by “pattern unlock” may find you the answer you’re looking for.

This is the method that would have let me access the Galaxy S3 formerly in my possession:

I should reemphasize that this method wasn’t needed.

Do Return the Lost Phone You Found!

If you find a lost phone, returning it is easy. If you have the IMEI or ESN number, simply contact your cellular service provider and leave your contact info with them. If you don’t have the IMEI, either wait until they call your phone or you can attempt to bypass the lock pattern.

For those of you looking to recover a stolen device, there are a variety of methods. Some older strategies revolve around installing software. However, the newer Android Device Manager lets you locate a stolen device without installing anything. Apple users can use the Find My feature to locate their phone.

Author: Kannon Yamada

Source: Kannon Yamada.” Found a Lost Phone? How to Return It to Its Owner in 6 Easy Steps”. Retrieved From

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