Have you ever reached into your pocket only to realize that it was empty? A heart attack ensues and you’re left frantic, mentally tracing back your steps until you can pinpoint the last time you used your smartphone.
Unfortunately, this kind of story doesn’t always have a happy ending.
That’s why there are dozens of tools and apps out there that are designed for this one specific purpose: to give you the peace of mind from knowing that you’ll always be able to track down your mobile device, whether it was simply left behind somewhere or lifted while you weren’t paying attention.
But of all the choices out there, we recommend using Google’s own Android Device Manager. Here’s why.
What Is Android Device Manager?
It wasn’t all that long ago when Lost and Founds were our only hope whenever we would misplace our mobile devices. Locator apps existed back then but were primitive and unreliable, and if your device never turned up, you’d have to write it off as a loss and hope that your insurance would cover it to a useful degree.
But in August 2013, Google rolled out a new feature for all Android devices version 2.3 and above called Android Device Manager, which should be enabled by default on all new devices, but if you aren’t sure then you can follow these instructions to check:
Navigate to Settings.
Find the Permissions section and tap Security.
Scroll down and tap Device Administrators.
Tap the checkmark to enable Android Device Manager.
Confirm the permissions popup to complete activation.
If that doesn’t work for you, there’s a second way to enable this feature:
Launch the Google Settings app.
Scroll down and tap Security (you may not need this step).
Under Android Device Manager, enable both checkmarks.
As you may have gleaned while going through all of this setup, Android Device Manager provides basic but robust functionality to help guard against mobile device theft — namely in the forms of remote tracking, remote locking, and remote wiping.
In other words, it’s the Android equivalent of Find My iPhone. Let’s take a look at what these features actually do and how you can make use of them once Android Device Manager is ready.
How to Use Android Device Manager
The very first step is to visit and bookmark the Android Device Manager dashboard. It will ask you to log into your Google account if you aren’t already. Once in, you’ll see a list all of the devices connected to that account.
For each listed device, you’ll see the last known location, the last time it was detected as being online, and four actions you can take:
Locate Device, at the top right, which tries to find your device on demand.
Ring, which forces your device to ring at max volume for 5 minutes. This will work even if your device is set to silent or vibrate! A very handy feature considering that GPS locations are little more than rough approximations.
Lock, which prompts you for a password, then immediately locks the device with that password — even if someone is currently using it. The lockscreen is more secure than most third-party lockers, so this feature is especially useful.
Erase, which is basically a self-destruct button. It forces a factory reset on the device, erasing all apps, music, photos, and settings. And if the device isn’t available when you issue the command, it will happen the next time it comes online.
Obviously, the nuclear option should only be considered as a last resort when you’re positive that retrieving your device is no longer possible. As long as you still have hope of finding it, the lock function will suffice as adequate protection.
The other caveat is that you should alwaysback up your Android data. That way, when you do go through with the nuclear option, you can still salvage whatever was backed up. (Ideally, that would be everything.)
One alternative to the Web dashboard is to install the Android Device Manager app, which is freely available on the Play Store. It’s a lightweight app (clocking in at less than 2 MB). You’ll need to grant it permission to use your location data (obviously), and you’ll have to log into your Google account (just like with the web dashboard).
The two methods are essentially the same, so it’s up to you which one you decide to use.
Third-Party App Alternatives
While it’s certainly convenient that these features are now built into the operating system itself, they may not be enough for some of us. They’re enough for me, but if you’re looking for something more advanced and nifty, there are other Android anti-theft apps worth considering.
The two that I most recommend are Lookout and Prey.
Lookout provides a wide range of security features beyond just anti-theft. The free version keeps you safe against malware and viruses, locates your device, allows for a remote alarm, automatically saves device location when battery gets low, and saves a backup of your contacts so you can download them elsewhere.
The premium version ($3 per month) is where things get interesting. Lookout will snap a photo when it thinks someone is tampering with your device and email it to you. It also blocks suspicious URLs, limits the information that apps can access, and allows you to remotely lock, self-destruct, or post messages to your device.
Free features include remote locating, locking, and wiping for up to 3 devices at a time. Upgrading to a paid account (starting at $5 per month) increases the number of simultaneous devices and introduces a few other features like report generation, Active Mode, and SSL encryption.
Regardless of whether you go with Android Device Manager or a third-party solution, the best defense is to practice good security habits — but no one is flawless, which is why these fallback measures exist. You don’t have to use them, but if you choose not to, you do so at your own risk.
Do you have any safeguards in place for when your devices are lost or stolen? Which services do you trust the most? Share your success or regret stories with us in the comments below!