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Stolen iPhones and cellular accounts
By Jesse Hollington | 07.12.13

Q: My iPhone was recently stolen. I had a passcode on it and enabled the Find My iPhone feature and put a passcode on that. I noticed that the iPhone at one point had charged to 5% but the location was never revealed or emailed to me like I had requested. Without the thief knowing my passcode, are they still able to wipe my iPhone clean, or do they just have an unusable, dead iPhone? Also, if they were able to wipe it clean, can I call my provider to see if it has been used, and would it still be under my cell number?

- Ryan

A: Unfortunately, even with the Find My iPhone feature, once a device’s battery goes dead there’s not much you can do to locate it. There are also rare circumstances where you might be able to contact your iPhone to see its battery capacity but not actually be able to track a precise location since that depends on the iPhone being able to reach Wi-Fi access points and GPS satellites; cellular triangulation only is considerably imprecise without these other elements being available.

An iPhone can easily be erased even if the thief does not know your passcode simply by connecting it to a computer running iTunes and following the standard “Restore” procedure. While your personal data will be save, since the Find My iPhone feature is just another configuration setting, a full erase of the iPhone will also disable this feature and you will no longer be able to track it.

However, unless the thief changes the SIM card in your iPhone, it will still be using your cellular phone number, even after it is erased. You should contact your cellular provider as soon as possible to deal with this, as the thief could be racking up expensive calls under your account, which you will be responsible for until you have reported the theft to your carrier. If you’ve replaced your iPhone, you can have your carrier transfer the number to another device; if not you should have them temporarily suspend the account.

Note that you can avoid this potential problem in the future by setting a SIM PIN on your iPhone. This is a four-digit code that must be entered any time an iPhone is restarted before it can access the cellular data network. This code is stored on the SIM card itself and would also be required on any other device that the SIM card was inserted into.
Note that this is something of a double-edged sword, however, since this will prevent cellular data access as well, meaning that if a thief steals your iPhone and restarts it, you would quite likely lose access to the Find My iPhone feature unless the device happens to be on a known Wi-Fi network.

Note that iOS 7, expected to be released in the fall, introduces a new Activation Lock feature that will prevent a device with “Find My iPhone” enabled from being re-activated with Apple’s servers once it’s been wiped. This won’t necessarily help you recover a lost iPhone, since wiping the iPhone still disables the location features, but it will ensure that a stolen iPhone is of little to no use for a potential thief.

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