Stolen iPhone

If you follow me on Twitter, or we’re friends on Facebook, then you may well be aware that my iPhone 4S got stolen on the evening of 10th April. I was with my girlfriend at a bus stop, and someone grabbed it from my hands and sprinted away. It was a surprisingly harrowing experience — given that no physical damage was done to either of us — and not one I want to repeat in the near future. I’m bringing it up here to address some of the concerns I stumbled across between it being stolen and restoring from a backup.

Dealing with the theft

A screenshot of the list of devices I can find on Apple's iCloud.
Find My iPhone

I have heard so many stories about people finding their phone’s thief via Apple’s Find my iPhone service (available as an iOS app or from the iCloud website). After calling the police, I immediately logged into the service, but my iPhone was reported as being offline. You can send a message to your handset even if it isn’t showing up, and you can ask it to send you an email next time the iPhone’s location is found. I ticked the relevant boxes and decided to hope an email came through. When the police arrived they took my Apple ID (email and password) to try and use the same service.1

As well as taking my Apple ID details, the police wrote down my statement, and also walked me through processes like cancelling the SIM card. They have a list of phone numbers for all the major British mobile networks, and so I was able to phone my provider, Three. They were able to cancel the SIM that had been in my phone, and a new one was put into the mail for me. The next step was to lodge an insurance claim, which I did the next morning. After I’d sorted all the annoying parts out (talking to the police, the phone company and the insurance company), I started to delve into the tech aspects of what I could do.

Securing the phone

The first thing I did was limit the access the phone had to various web services that I use. I started with Gmail, since it literally contains every email I’ve received over the last eight years and there’s potentially a goldmine of personal information to be found there. Fortunately, I use something called two factor authentication on my account2. This means you need a code and the password in order to access my account. This makes me a lot safer from people trying to access it online. It also means that any apps that can’t use this system (for example, the iPhone’s Mail client) have to use a specially generated password to access my account, which I was able to revoke, thus cutting off the thief’s potential access (I also cut him off from my YouTube account, which was possibly less urgent).

Another step I took with Gmail was to close any open sessions that I have, and force every computer other than my laptop to ask for my password and authentication code next time I tried to use it. This was a bit of a pain, but it meant the thief would not be able to access my email at all on my phone. I did the same with my Facebook account, and I changed the password on my work email address so that it would be inaccessible.

Losing my data

When I returned home, I looked at iPhoto and iTunes, because I wanted to see what the backup status of the phone was. I checked Photo Stream, which showed that the photographs I had taken the previous day had uploaded to iCloud, but the photographs I had taken on the day the phone was stolen had been lost. Since I uploaded a few to Instagram on my travels, they’re not totally gone, but it’s still a little irritating. I also checked the iPhone’s profile in iTunes to see when the last iCloud backup had been. It told me 4th April, about a week prior to the theft; it was roughly coincident with the last time I’d plugged my phone into my Mac to charge. That was more annoying, since a week is a lot of lost data!

A train operated by CrossCountry Trains speeding through a station.
CrossCountry Trains

The most annoying thing to lose was the Train Tickets app by CrossCountry Trains. They’ve just started charging £1 to get tickets from self-service machines in train stations, and the only free delivery option is now something called an m-ticket. This sends a barcode (which is your ticket) to the app, and you show it on the train when asked for your ticket. This is all very well, but if your phone has been stolen, it presents obvious issues. I rang CrossCountry and selected the appropriate options to talk about an existing reservation, and was put through to an overseas call centre.

I explained my situation, said I was willing to pay a surcharge for one of the non-free delivery methods, and asked whether my ticket could be resent to me. I was told no. Asking to speak to a supervisor got me nowhere, and eventually the sales rep gave me the complaints centre phone number (she couldn’t transfer me because it’s a UK-based call centre) and I hung up. Upon ringing them, I was told that there was indeed something they could do: just install the app on another device. Ring the complaints centre, and give them the new app’s Download ID, and they can transfer the ticket. If you’re ever in this situation, bear that in mind!3

Replacing the phone

A photograph of a Nokia 3510i on a desk.
Nokia 3510i.

Fast forward to today, and, after using a Nokia 3510i4 for the better part of a week, I had the conversation with my insurance company that enabled me to go and buy my replacement iPhone 4S. I plugged my new SIM card in as soon as I got home, went through the setup, and input my Apple ID details expecting to see the backup from two weeks ago show up. Instead, it reported that there were no backups.

Instantly, an icy sensation ran through me. What do you mean by no backups?

I checked iTunes to see whether there were any backups on my Mac, as opposed to on iCloud — no such luck. I then checked the iCloud panel in System Preferences, and it told me I had 1GB of space used for a backup made on 11th April, the day my phone was stolen5. Somewhat reassured that the issue should at least be a solvable one, I Googled, and found a very enlightening Apple Discussions thread. Imagine you have an iPhone running a new version of iOS, and you make a backup. If you then try to restore that backup to an iPhone running an older version, it turns out that iCloud will report you have no backups, with no further error nor explanation. This is a total travesty of user experience, and something that Apple badly need to work on.6

My iPhone 4S, before it was stolen, was running iOS 5.1, the latest version. The replacement I was given was running an older version. I selected ‘Set the iPhone up as a new phone’, selected to skip inputting my iCloud details and skipped as many steps as possible until iTunes showed the iPhone and I was able to register the handset and update the software to iOS 5.1. I then restored the iPhone to its factory settings through iTunes, followed the same steps and my iCloud backup showed up as clear as day.

Now that I’ve restored from that backup, I’ve logged into Find my iPhone and asked it to remotely wipe my iPhone next time it comes online. I also want to try to give Apple its serial number and IMEI number, in case anyone ever takes it to the Genius Bar to get it repaired.

Regardless of any teething problems I may have had, I was just happy to get my phone back up and running. Being without an iPhone was not a great experience for a host of reasons, and having a replacement lets me put this entire sorry mess behind me (as well as allowing me peace of mind regarding the train ticket situation). It could have been a lot worse, and I’m extremely grateful that it wasn’t.


  1. It almost surprised me that the police don’t have a more sophisticated method of tracking phones — something that doesn’t require the victim’s Apple ID password to work. It strikes me that anything like that would cause a huge outpouring of anti-surveillance sentiment. I think it’s good that the police cannot track random people just using their email address, but it does make me wonder whether the system could be improved to allow the police to track phones that have been stolen with the consent of a victim. Maybe that’s just the stuff of pipes. 
  2. There is also a YouTube video that explains two-factor authentication, available from Google Support. The code can be sent via telephone call, text message or smartphone app, so I recommend setting it up if you’re concerned about security. 
  3. Or restore the phone from a backup, and the app will be just as you left it — train tickets and all. 
  4. One review says “The 3510i is not highly recommended, due to software reliability problems and the fact that it’s an old phone with a limited specification: try the newer Nokia 3100 instead.” I thought this was fair enough, but then I noticed that the review was dated 2003. This phone was considered out-of-date nine years ago
  5. The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that System Preferences and iTunes gave me dates for the last backup that were a week apart. It’s my theory (and I’d be glad to hear from anyone who could confirm or debunk this) that the “last backed up to iCloud” statistic in iTunes is simply the last backup before the most recent iTunes sync. This is obviously not a useful or reliable indicator of backup status. 
  6. Perhaps the app should show all iOS device backups, greyed out, with a message saying ‘your phone may require an update before being restored from a backup’. Or perhaps iCloud could look at the type of phone, look at backups made by the same type of phone, and then say, “this backup is from a more recent version of iOS, would you like to update this iPhone and then restore from this backup?”. This problem is totally not without obvious solutions, and the fact that it exists at all is not at all like Apple. 
  • Gareth

    I suspect that the police can track a mobile phone, with the help of the phone companies, however Data Protection may require a Court order of some sort.

    I have to admit, when I ‘lost’ my iPad, I set a hard password, ie full alphanumeric, four words long.

    Which when it turned up next day was easy to turn off!

  • http://www.chickensinenvelopes.net/ John

    That does make sense — I wonder how difficult they are to obtain?