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Lost your phone? Plan ahead, go low tech

A couple days ago, halfway through a busy night, I lost my phone. Happily, I got it back just half a day later, along with some lessons learned and a great story. I tried all sorts of high tech tricks, but in the end it was pen and paper and a bit of foresight that saved the day.

It’s worth mentioning a silver lining first. Thanks to the cloud, full device encryption, and remote administration and wipe, losing a phone is no longer the disaster it once was. However, it still costs money and time to replace, so naturally I wanted to recover it if I could.

I realized it was gone as soon as we left Pause. When it didn’t turn up there, I immediately thought to try Pintail, a tracking app I’d installed. Text your phone a keyword and PIN and Pintail responds with its location.

Pintail reported it was on Clement St., nowhere near anything we’d done that night. We retraced our steps, compared notes, and figured I’d left it in a cab halfway through the night. Sure enough, over the next hour, Pintail took us on a tour all over the city and even out to Oakland and Berkeley.

Luckily, I remembered the name on the side of the cab: Vina. Google quickly found their web site, which proudly sports a search box, RSS feed, and even a Google Apps login, but no actual content or contact information. Ah, small business web sites.

I was not to be deterred. Google also found an address in Potrero and a plethora of phone numbers. Two of them rang until I gave up, one gave me an AT&T pitch for a service to “find similar businesses” – leaving me to connect the dots that the number was disconnected – and amazingly, the last was a working answering machine. I left a message, knowing full well what a long shot it was.

The next morning, Pintail greeted me from outside an apartment building in Daly City. It was still there an hour later, so I checked Street View. If the cab was parked there when Google’s camera crew drove by, I’d have a good lead. It wasn’t, of course, but Pintail was insistent, so I hopped in my car and drove over, hoping to find it and leave a note.

I canvassed the street and all of the nearby apartment buildings, but I didn’t see a single car with Vina’s livery. Pintail had gone dark too, most likely due to a dead battery. (I could only hope.) That left the building itself. I paused for a minute, recalling ham-fisted stories of police tracking lost iPhone prototypes, then thought “why not?” and headed inside to knock on doors.

The tenants weren’t eager to talk. I heard TVs blaring and kids playing inside many of the apartments, but only five answered my knock, and four of those spoke to me from behind closed doors. I asked if they drove a cab, or knew anyone in the apartment who did, or found a phone recently. One pointed me to #9, which didn’t answer. The rest claimed ignorance.

I taped my note to the wall of the lobby and left, not expecting much. I could search public records to find the owner and call them, but that sounded like the biggest wild goose chase yet. If I didn’t hear from Vina, I figured I’d call it a wash and get a new one. So when I came home to a voicemail from my secret weapon, asking me to come pick up my phone, I was pretty damn excited.

Sorry, I should explain. A while back, I taped contact information to the back of my phone in case something like this happened. More importantly, I promised a cash reward. I’d never needed it before, but on its first test, it came through with flying colors. I called the driver back, set up a meeting, and half an hour later I had my phone.

Moral of the story? Plan ahead, and don’t be afraid to go low tech. Technology like apps and GPS and Street View are great, but keep some contingency planning and elbow grease in your bag of tricks too. When that note finally rubs off of my phone, you can bet I’ll print out another one and tape it on.


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