When Is Finding a Lost Cell Phone Beyond Hope?

This post is brought to you by real life, my life. Its a story about what happens when a blogger who writes about GPS tracking ends up losing his phone, and how sometimes there is nothing you can do about finding it.

Recently, my family and I were vacationing in America’s Finest City. We were having a great time enjoying the 70 degree weather, the sunny skies, wonderful food, and sandy beaches. The weather was fantastic and a nice break from the frigid January we would have had to spend in the Midwest where we live. We went outside all the time and took several trips to the beach to enjoy the surf, smell the salty air, skip rocks, and get sand everywhere.

Beach Fun 1

We really had a grand ole time.

Beach Fun 2

Beach Fun 3

Then it came time to get back to the car, get the kids clean, and get home. It was clearly nap time. We had to walk a good bit to get back to the car and upon arrival we quickly set about getting the kids ready for departure. While my wife changed one I was cleaning the other – a task made difficult by tiredness and sand’s ability to stick to anything. Frustrated and done it was finally time to get the kids in the car. As I was taking our youngest to his seat I took out my phone to see if I had any messages from friends who I would hang out with later that night. I had none and as I was transferring our child to his car seat I placed my phone on the roof of the car. Big mistake.

Our other child distracted me by wanting me to get him in buckled in too so I went over to his side of the car, got him in, and then got in the car myself. My phone, a Droid X, was still sitting on the top of the car.

We got in the car, popped a U-turn and started heading home. 10 minutes later as the car accelerates up the on ramp to get on the free way we hear a thud and look around the inside of the car to see what had happened. We think its just my son throwing one of his sticks against the side of the car. We continue driving and I think little of the thud and what it could mean.

It wasn’t until we get home, get inside, and lay the napping kids down that I realize I don’t have my phone on me. I panic, but stay calm because I know I have Lookout Mobile Security downloaded to my phone.

I get on the laptop, log into my account, and do a phone locate through their website. It was a long three minutes waiting for the app to tell me where my phone is and at the end of three minutes I still had nothing. So I did it again, hoping that there was just a minor glitch and the phone would figure it out. It didn’t.

Then I downloaded Plan B to my phone, not so much for the location of the phone but to see if it was on and had a network connection. In a lot of our tests in the review of Plan B the app downloaded within a minute to our phone and our GMail account received a message from Lookout telling us it would have a position on our phone soon. This didn’t happen this time.

I found myself in the worst case scenario for loosing your cell phone. My phone was either off, out of batteries, destroyed, or taken over by someone else who knew what to do as soon as they found my phone. At this point there was no technological solution to my problem. All I could do was go back, retrace my steps, and see if I could find my phone. GPS tracking would be of no help to me.

So I got in the car, drove the 20 minutes back to where we parked and surveyed the scene. After looking for a few minutes I faintly remember placing the phone on the roof and then I hear it, the thud as we accelerated onto the freeway. Its at that moment that I realize my phone is not stolen, its not off, and its not out of batteries. My phone is smashed into a confetti of plastic and silicon.

Here are some of my takeaways from this experience:

  1. Sometimes being prepared doesn’t matter. I was certainly prepared in the eventuality that my cell phone might become lost or stolen. I had the necessary apps installed and had done my homework on how to use them. But there are some things that you just can’t control.
  2. GPS tracking apps have their limits. This is really just a restatement of my first takeaway, but needs to be said. Tracking apps ARE NOT the solution for finding every lost phone. Good ole fashioned skills such as retracing your steps and remembering cannot be bypassed.
  3. Don’t be an idiot. I was an idiot and did not properly secure my phone. I should have put it back into my pocket. Or better yet, gotten a magnetic case so it would have stuck to my car. ūüôā

Plan B {GPS Tracker App Review}

Plan B is a cell phone recovery app that is designed to be used after your mobile has already been lost. It is positioned as an “app of last resort” and as such it is going to be used by people who didn’t realize that there are apps out there that can help you track down your phone in case it gets lost or stolen. As such, it is going to save hundreds of thousands of phones that have been separated from their owners. We put a lot of important, personal information on our phones that we want to keep private and an app like Plan B is exactly what thousands of people need to get reunited with these powerful (and easily lost) bits of technology. Plan B is available exclusively on Android phones, is completely free, and requires Android 2. 0 and up.

Recommendation: Yes! Use Plan B if your Android cell is already lost or stolen

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Review Table of Contents

A Note On Readers Of This Review
We tried our best to simulate real world situations when testing Plan B. Due to the nature of the vast variety of real life situations people might face when losing their cell phone we were only able to recreate a handful of them. User experiences may vary given the exact circumstances that your phone is in when lost.

Also, different hardware may respond differently. In our tests we used a Droid X. Your particular phone may have different hardware than the Droid X and therefore preform differently. Our phone was also on the Verizon network. Mobiles on other networks may perform differently.

This review is simply for educational purposes only and is meant to allow readers to make informed decisions about what apps like this can do. Please add your own experiences with the app to the comments so everyone can get a better feel for how Plan B works.

Navigation

Lost Cell Phone GPS Tracking Explained

Almost everyone has had the experience of misplacing or losing their cell phone. We also all know what it is like to search and search for our lost cell phone in the hope of finding in some obvious or not so obvious spot. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some way to leverage a cell phones built in GPS technology to help it “find” itself? Lost cell phone GPS tracking is real and is a very powerful and efficient way for people to recover their mobile phones once thy have misplaced them.

This article is going to attempt to give an introduction to how GPS locates cell phones in the world and how this information can be used by owners to find their lost cell phone.

GPS: What Is It?

The Global Positioning System (of which GPS is the acronym) is a network of satellites that orbit the earth and specialized receivers here on earth that interact with each other. The system was developed by the US military in an effort to get a better understanding of where their forces were at any given moment and has been around fro several decades. It was made available to the public under President Ronald Reagan and since then there has been an explosion in the use of GPS technology by regular citizens. We are all familiar with GPS navigation technology, and this is one of the most prolific uses of GPS in the consumer market.

The way GPS works is through a mathematical principle called trilateration. The simple explanation of trilateration is this – if you know where three things are in the world and you know your distance from each of those things then you can figure out exactly where you are. If that doesn’t make much sense then just take a look at the picture to the right. You can know where Point B is in the world if you know where P1, P2, and P3 are.

The world of the Global Positioning Systems, the satellites that orbit the earth are represented like P1, P2, and P3 in our picture above. These satellites emit a signal through the air the travels at a certain speed. This signal contains information like the time that it was sent and a uniquely identifying id. This information is then process by a GPS receiver, which is the same as point B in the picture above. The receiver takes the information sent by the satellites and finds out its distance from each of P1, P2, and P3. It then does some fancy math and finds out exactly where it is right now.

Some GPS receivers that are used for navigation will then show the user this data in map form so that they can know where they are. GPS tracking devices will take the data and send it out over a cell phone network (GSM tracker) or over a communicate satellite (satellite tracker). Still other devices, known as data loggers will simply store the data on its hard drive for download at a later time. Whatever GPS device you are using, they all work of this same principle of trilateration and all fit into the same category.

GPS In Cell Phones

A few years ago GPS receivers began to find their way into cell phones. Then there was a move by the federal government that required cell phone carriers develop a way to help them find out the location that 9-1-1 phone calls made from cell phone originated. The carriers had the option then of using their own GSM networks to create a tracking system based off of the same principle as the GPS network. Some carriers went with this option. Other carriers decided to go ahead and put GPS in cell phones that they were going to provide to their customers.

There are a lot of different things that people use GPS in cell phones now these days. The first and most obvious is navigation. Almost everyone likes to get turn by turn directions spoken to them, especially when traveling in new and unknown places. Cell phone navigation has become to prevalent that some industry experts suspect that the cell phone is going to surpass the PND (Personal Navigation Device) as the navigation device of choice in just a few years time.

Cell phone GPS is also used for all sorts of fun apps and internet surfing features. If you want to know of good restaurants that are near you right now, there are internet searches and apps for that. If you would love to find out the prices of homes in your neighborhood then there is a real estate GPS tracking app for that too. There are literally tons and tons of different ways that GPS is being used by everyday people for any number of normal activities. It is safe to say that GPS receivers in cell phone are making the world a thoroughly more navigable place.

GPS Tracking of Cell Phones

But this article is about lost cell phone GPS tracking, not about all the cool things that GPS is doing for cell phone technology. So to help us understand how GPS can help us find lost cell phones a quick word needs to be said about the GPS tracking of cell phones. A brief definition of GPS tracking should be given: GPS tracking is the ability to track the location of a person, vehicle, or object as it moves throughout the world. There are two types of GPS tracking, passive and active. Active tracking occurs in real time and lets you find out where something is right now. Passive GPS tracking has to do with data loggers, which find out your position and then store it on the device for use later when you can download the information into some tracking software.

Anyway, the tracking available in cell phones is real time GPS tracking – and this is important because it will allow you to use it in order to find a lost cell phone. It would work something like this. You download a GPS tracking application onto your cell phone from among one of the many different free GPS tracking applications or software available. Once it is downloaded and installed you just keep it running on your phone so that you will have a running GPS log of your location. If you ever lose your cell phone, you can find out the last place it was when the battery still had a charge.

In order to use your GPS to help find your lost cell phone you need to have the following conditions met:

  1. Your cell phone must be turned on.
  2. You must have a GPS tracking application installed on your phone.
  3. The tracking app must be running. This will ensure that the GPS is actively reading signals from the satellites in order to find out its location. It will also then send that information over the cell phone network so that you can view it on the internet.
  4. Your cell phone must be receiving signals from satellites. If your phone is buried beneath 100 feet of concrete then there is no hope of finding it!
  5. Your cell phone must be getting a signal from cell phone towers. If it is not then you will not have a method of sending information to the Internet for you to look at it.

If you meet all of these criteria then you should be able to find a lost cell phone with GPS tracking.

We have also included a larger list of apps that you can download to smart phones of several different varieties. Just check out our post about free GPS cell phone trackers.

Ways to Use It

One of the most important ways that this technology can be used is to help children keep track of their cell phones. GPS cell phones for kids are great because they provide excellent safety for our children, but they are no good to use or to them if they lose them. If you need to know where their lost mobile phone is just log onto the computer and figure it out.

The same is true for businessmen who have a cell phone with all their work contacts and email on it. If they were to lose this device it could disastrous for their next sales call if not for their entire career. If they have GPS tracking installed on their Blackberry then they should have no problem finding their phone and avoiding certain disaster.

If you would like more information on how to use your cell phone to find itself, please check out How to Find a Lost Cell Phone with GPS Tracking. It should provide you with some helpful tips on what you should do and give you some ideas of the different programs available for use in this type of tracking.

GPS tracking works great in cell phones. Their small, light-weight nature makes them a perfect fit for the way that most people live their lives. It also is the perfect vehicle for tracking because it is connected to GSM cell phone networks, giving them the ability to send large amounts of information long distances almost instantly. This could not be done with standard telephones. Telephone GPS tracking wouldn’t even make any sense since they are static and do not move anywhere.

Do you have any helpful tips for people trying to utilize lost cell phone GPS tracking?

GPS Cell Phone Tracking Finds Stolen Cell Phone, Catches Criminals

There is recent news that an Apple application called MobileMe has been instrumental in recovering a stolen iPhone and catching the individuals who stole it at gunpoint.¬† This isn’t the first time that a GPS enabled iPhone has been used to catch criminals red handed, and it certainly won’t be the last.¬† GPS tracking for cell phones is only going to become more prevalent, and stories like this are going to spread the word about just how powerful GPS is on our mobile devices.

According to reports from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the owner of the iPhone was mugged by two individuals around 1 a.m.¬† The thieves took the man’s wallet, pin numbers, and iPhone while one of the assailants held what appeared to be a gun.¬† As the police would later discover, the “gun” was just a pellet pistol.

After handing over his belongings, the victim ran away and called police.¬† The victim then got on a computer and used MobileMe’s Find My iPhone feature to locate his cell phone.¬† He presumably passed this information along to the police who were then able to track down the thieves at a gas station.

Even though two suspects were involved in the robbery, three were arrested in connection with the crime.

iphone-thief-1iphone-thief-2iphone-thief-3

GPS Tracking As Theft Recovery

Using GPS tracking as a way to recover lost or stolen property is a great way to make use of this powerful technology.¬† The example from this news story is just one of many different ways that being able to track¬† your phone could be useful.¬† What if your purse gets stolen at a night club with your cell phone it?¬† Or how about your car?¬† Or your backpack while you are at school?¬† Wouldn’t it be great if you could just rush over to a computer and be able to give police laser targeted information about where you think your belongings are?¬† Of course it would.¬† That is why we think that the use of GPS tracking in cell phones is such an important thing for consumers to do if they can afford it and are able to do so.

In fact, you don’t even have to use the tracking on the cell phone primarily for theft recovery.¬† Many of the tracking applications available on mobile devices are social in nature, letting friends or family members know where you are during the course of your day.¬† If this is the type of thing that appeals to you then it also works great as a GPS theft recovery system as well.¬† All you would need to do to make use of it would be to go to a computer and log on and check out where your phone is.

If you are using the phone to monitor the driving of a teenager then this too will work in the theft recovery role.  Heck, it could even work in a find a lost cell phone role too since teenagers are so absent minded sometimes.  Again, all you would need is to have the phone turned on and for it to be receiving a signal from cell phone towers.  If these conditions are met then just run over to a computer and you can find out exactly where your phone is through the power of GPS.

What Is MobileMe?

The truth of the matter is there are literally dozens of different GPS tracking and phone location programs for cell phones – but the program used in the this particular example was MobileMe for iPhone.¬† This is a subscription program that currently runs for $99 a year (~$8.30 a month).¬† If this were just a GPS tracking application then this would be way over priced, but it isn’t just a tracking app.

It allows iPhone users to sync there data between their personal computer, whether it is a laptop or a desktop.  You are given a single email account (johndoe@me.com) that is always kept up-to-date.  If you check your email on your iPhone while you are out on the town then when you get home that email is going to be marked as read.  The same is true of your work PC as well.  This can be a pretty useful feature for on the go professionals or students.

Another feature is the ability to push contacts from your iPhone to your PC without having to hook anything up.  If you are out and you meet a client, contact, or study partner that you want to shoot an email all you will have to do is get their information into your cell phone and the information will automatically be synced with your Outlook account or Address Book on your Mac.

The last push feature that MobileMe offers is the push calander option.¬† Like the other two features, this turns your iPhone it the perfect mobile calendaring device.¬† You don’t have to worry about manually updating your home calendar of manually syncing your different devices together to make sure that appointments you make at your desk get put into your cell phone and vice versa.¬† MobileMe takes care of it all and does so seamlessly.

You also get a cool photo gallery feature, online file storage, and access to me.com.

In additional to all this, they have a Find My iPhone feature that is the source of interest in this news story. What this feature does is it allows users to put a special message on a lost or stolen iPhone, wipe person data from your iPhone remotely, and get a GPS derived location of your cell phone.

As you might suspect, each of these features is pretty powerful. Being able to display a message on your phone could help in the event that you forgot is somewhere. You could say something like, “Oi! I left my mobile phone at the coffee shop. I am on my way to pick it up right now. Please leave it at the counter for me please.” Or if it is stolen you could say something like, “You shall not steal. – God.” Either way, you get a message across that will keep your cell phone safe and hopefully get it back into your hands quickly.

The information wipe feature is also useful because it helps protect your privacy and the privacy of those on your list. Do you really want a thief to have the information of all your most intimate contacts? Do you want them to know your Grandma’s address? Or know where all your girlfriends live? No! Being able to wipe this data off your phone is a very useful feature.

And finally, MobilMe lets you find the location of your phone. If it didn’t this news story wouldn’t be much of a story.

Is all this worth $99 a year? For some it is going to be. For others it will not be. Thankfully, there are other options for those who want to use GPS tracking on their cell phone for theft recovery.

Free GPS Applications For The iPhone

Many phones on the market have the ability to be tracked with GPS, not just “cool” mobile phones like the iPhone. As a result, there are many free tracking programs available for a wide range of mobile device. Many of these programs only work with subset of all the GPS enabled cell phone on the market, so finding one that works for your particular phone is going to take some work – but free is a really nice word, so the work is worth it.

One free GPS tracking software package that is particularly well received is Instamapper. This program works on a lot of different phones and communicates the tracking information in a lot of different ways. It is completely free to use (but check out some warnings about free GPS cell phone tracking) so you really have no reason not to at least give it a try. It could be the difference between catching a criminal and letting them get away with their crime.

How To Find A Lost Cell Phone With GPS Tracking

I lost my cell phone. Help!

We have all been there before – our precious cell phone has suddenly gone missing and we have no idea where it is.¬† We do a quick check of all the places that we normally put it; it isn’t there.¬† We rehash every event from the time we last remember having our mobile phone to the time when we first noticed that it was missing. ¬†Where did we go? ¬†Who were we with? ¬†What was I wearing?

We try calling our cell phone in the hope that the ringer is on and that it is somewhere nearby.  We pace frantically through our home and run out to the car in the hopes of hearing our awesome ringtone.

But when all of this fails us, we are simply left with worry. ¬†All we can do is hope that some switch will flip in our brain and we will all of a sudden “remember” exactly where it is.

How can we increase the likelihood of actually finding a lost cell phone? GPS tracking!

Here’s how this technology can help:

Lost Cell Phone No GPS Tracking

  1. Have a GPS tracking app on your phone. This will either need to be already installed or you will need to install it remotely (see here for tips on remote installation).
  2. Access your phone’s location using the web. Most tracking apps have some sort of web interface through which you can access your tracking information remotely. Do this; it should tell you where your phone is.

Yes, finding a lost cell phone by using a free tracking apps is that easy. In our tests of various apps we have found that the whole process can take just a few minutes to complete, even if you don’t already have the software installed on your phone. Conditions do need to be right for this to work process to work. They include:

  1. Your cell phone must be on.
  2. Your cell phone must have a connection to your network or be connected to WiFi.
  3. Your cell phone must be able to get messages from GPS satellites.

If you fail in any one of these items you will not be able to us GPS tracking to find your mobile. Sorry.

Understanding How GPS Tracking Works For Cell Phone Recovery

If you have not already heard, GPS stands for the Global Positioning System and is a series of satellites that emit a radio signal that can be read by specialized GPS receivers. These receivers use the information encoded in the radio signals to do a little math called trilateration.  Once that equation is done, the GPS device will know its exact location on the globe. Pretty niffty, right?

GPS systems have become increasingly smaller over the years and have made their way into pretty much every single smarphone on the market.  Chances are, if you own a newer cell phone that runs Android or iOS then you have GPS in your phone.

GPS tracking occurs when the position information is gathered by the device. This information is either stored locally or sent out from the device of the network. The former process is called data logging, and is only GPS tracking of a sort.  The latter process is what most people think of when they talk about GPS tracking and is often referred to as real-time GPS tracking. If you are trying to find a lost cell phone they you are trying to use the second variety.

Once the cell phone has found its exact location using GPS (or by a very similar mathematical process using cell phone tower signals) it can send that information out over the wireless network to which it is connected. The cell phone only needs to be on.  Most tracking programs will work behind the scenes with little to no action taken by a user.

Therefore, the cell phone must be on so that it can process the signals it is receiving from the GPS satellites and talk over the cell phone network. It must have a network connection of some kind to send the information that it gathers from the satellites.  This information then travels across the network to the company that is helping you track your phone. Finally, it must be able to get messages from the GPS satellites in order to find its position in the world.  If it has no position information it will have nothing to communicate.

Finding A Good (Free) GPS Tracking App To Find Your Phone

Finding the right app for your particular brand of phone is definitely not easy. ¬†The biggest problem is choice, especially for Android users. You might want to check with your phone’s particular app store or see one of these posts for potential apps:

  1. Our post on How To Install GPS Tracking Apps Remotely To Find A Lost Or Stolen Android Cell Phone also contains a list of all apps that can be downloaded and installed to your phone remotely that we have personally tested on our Android phones.
  2. We also have a list of applications and software that can be downloaded here: Free GPS Tracking Applications and Software
  3. We have still another list of free options out there for cell phone tracking

Also, if you feel like paying for something that you could do for yourself for free then you could always go with a one of your provider’s tracking plans. I have seen a family plan for a little as $5 a month depending on your current service agreement. While this is a nominal payment, it is ‚ąě more expensive than free! If you can get the same service for free, why not do it?

A Final Word: Data Plans

No matter what your final choice for an app is, you are definitely going to need to have a data plan that will allow for the transmission of data across the network.  Most people already have one anyway (you own a smartphone, after all).  Those that do not have a data plan are often not worried about losing a phone that only costs $40 to replace!

Data plans are important because your cell phone will have to send the information about its position across the network if you want to track the phone in real time. You can’t find your lost cell phone without your cell phone telling you where it is. It can’t do that if it doesn’t have any way to send its coordinates out over a wireless network.

I would even recommend getting a pretty robust data plan because of all the fun and interesting apps that it will let you experiment with. For example, cell phones are great for a variety of fitness activities A lot of people take their phone with them anyway when they run for safety purposes, listen to music, or make phone calls.  Why not also use it to track your runs? There a ton of apps out there that track distance, average speed and time spent running.  Most even use websites that let you share workouts with friends or stay accountable to an online community. (Check out review of Endomondo for just one app in this market.)

This is just one additional application.  There are many more, from social apps to navigation apps, that can leverage the power of GPS to make life easier, more interesting or just plain fun.

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