Your Android phone is a little of everything: A photo album, a diary, a wallet, a gaming machine, a bank account, and more, all rolled together in one convenient, web-connected device. Unfortunately, that same convenience means that any enterprising thief could not only get your phone, but access to everything on it as well.
What to do if you've already lost your Android handset
As with the Apple-centric companion piece to this article, let's start with the worst-case scenario: Your Android phone is already missing and you haven't secured your device with a passcode or set up Android Device Manager — Google's baked-in anti-theft tool.
First and foremost: Try to track your device with the Android Device Manager. Unlike Apple's Find My iPhone service, the Android Device Manager can be fired up for the first time without having been configured on your device.
You won't be able to remotely wipe your device, however, which could leave your data defenceless. In my testing, I found I was able to remotely track and ring my Samsung Galaxy S3 without ever having accessed Android Device Manager before, but I wasn't able to do the same with my Nexus 7 under the same conditions. The point here is that unless you prepare ahead of time, individual results may vary.
You access the Android Device Manager through Google's Web portal. The large map should indicate the last known position of your device. If you don't see it, try hitting the Locate This Device button on the white inset window. Remember that the location is approximate, usually to within 25 metres.
If you see your phone moving around quite a bit, or in a location you've never been, odds are it's been picked up by someone else. You can try calling your phone yourself and attempt to secure its return from a good Samaritan, or use the Ring option in the Android Device Manager to attract attention to the lost device.
I can't recommend trying to track down and confront a thief yourself using the location information from Android Device Manager. Though the Internet is full of success stories along these lines, I wouldn't want to risk facing down a criminal on my own. I'd rather let the police do their job, and I recommend that you do the same.
Even as you try to recover your device, the most important task is mitigating the damage to you. Deactivate the phone with your network operator to prevent the thief from running up a lot of charges on your bill. Some providers will deactivate your device on their network, which prevents a thief from just resetting the handset and slapping in a new Sim card. Note that once you deactivate service, you won't be able to communicate with your Android handset via Android Device Manager. But again, this is a worst-case scenario.
You should also begin taking steps to prevent the thief from accessing the personal information on your Android device. Begin by visiting the web presence for every app and service on your phone to see if they have the option to logout other devices, revoke tokens, or de-register mobile devices. This will prevent the thief from simply firing up an app or a website and using your saved login information.
If you can't find an option to prevent mobile logins, simply reset your passwords. This will be much easier if you have a password manager, but if you don't, now's probably a great time to look at getting one (we recommend you consider Dashlane and LastPass).
Be sure to file a police report, with the understanding that it's unlikely the police will be able to act on the theft. Documenting the case is important, especially if the device turns up later. Be sure to include a unique identifier for your device, such as its phone number or better yet the serial number. Offering police the tracking information from the Android Device Manager may also help you get your phone back.
Finally, inform your friends and family of the theft. It's possible that the thief may try to impersonate you through social media or via SMS. By letting the people in your address book know that you've got a new number, you can prevent them from being victimised as well.
The benefits of Android
While Apple has led the way in smartphone security with its baked-in Find My iPhone feature, Android is secured by host of even more powerful third-party security apps. Most Android security suites sport anti-theft capabilities, in addition to anti-malware and suchlike.
Most Android security apps have roughly the same features — locate, remote alarm, and remote wipe — while remote SMS control is comparably rarer. But even these features can differ greatly in terms of how they're implemented. For instance, remotely triggered lockscreens will frequently allow you to access the notification tray and/or the app manager. Access to the notification tray is particularly problematic, since some devices let you toggle GPS, Wi-Fi, wireless data, and airplane mode, any of which would hinder communication with a lost device. Some security apps even allow fleeting access to the device's homescreen.
Bitdefender Mobile Security and Antivirus is our top pick for Android security suites, and it completely secures your device with an impassable lockscreen. It also features remote SMS commands, so you can keep control of your device even when it's not connected to a Wi-Fi network. You can try it out for two weeks, after which it costs £7 per year.
If you'd rather not pay any money, our pick of the bunch for free Android security suites is avast! Mobile Security & Antivirus. This boasts an incredible amount of anti-theft features, including powerful SMS commands and the option (on rooted devices) to place an anti-theft software module within the phone's OS partition. All of this, in addition to a web interface that lets you trigger all of your anti-theft tools simultaneously, helps balance out a problematic lockscreen that a thief could use to access your notification tray.
There are also dedicated anti-theft apps for Android like Prey and Bitdefender Anti-Theft, and these provide much the same protection as an Android security suite. Some of them, like Lookout's Plan B and Android Lost, are actually designed to be installed and activated remotely, even after a theft has taken place. Unfortunately, Plan B only works on devices running Android 2.0-2.3, making it useless on most current devices. Android Lost is more flexible, and while I have successfully installed and activated it remotely on a Galaxy S3, I was unable to repeat the process later. Again: Individual results may vary.
Taking the time to invest in some anti-theft or security apps and learning how to use them is the best way to get your device back from a thief. I cannot stress this enough.
However, nearly every security app and anti-theft app, even Android Device Manager, can't run to their full potential without you having access to your phone and setting them up. This is especially true if you want to remotely wipe your device — an action which requires granting Device Administrator privileges to an app. Others require the installation of special modules, or the creation of user accounts.
You should also take the time to learn how to use your security or anti-theft apps. Login to the web portal of whatever service you choose and find out how to use the web interface. Even the best security apps can have terribly confusing web interfaces, so it pays to know how things work when you're not panicking. If you plan on using remote SMS commands, definitely try these out first. Some of them can be confusing, and the lists of commands are frequently not easily accessible.
Also remember to set a passcode for your device. This very simple action can go a long way to keeping a thief out of your device's settings, and can buy you the time you need to remotely secure your device.
Theft and loss are the biggest threats to Android devices, and no matter how careful you are, such an incident will probably happen to you at some point. The time (and maybe money) you invest in the tools and the knowledge you need to stay safe will pay off with peace of mind and, just maybe, a successfully recovered Android handset.