Robert Freeman's whole Media, Business and Technology thing. Sorted.

How to give your lost phone a much better chance of being returned

with 18 comments

Gecko iPhone toolkit - An entirely unsophisticated brute force passcode crack.

Frankly I’m surprised any lost phones make it back to their owners at all.


Last week I found a phone on a train. It was well after 11pm and with few people around, I took the phone home, aiming to try tracking down the owner myself, else hand it in to a staffed office.

Find him I did, but the whole exercise made me really wonder how any lost iOS devices ever get returned (assuming they haven’t been stolen).

I made a short film about what happened …

… but I want to use this post to detail a little more about how it was done.

I’d been on the train since it started in Brighton, and was walking up through the carriages after we left Clapham Junction when I found the phone, so I’m guessing that’s where the owner got out in a hurry.

It was an iPhone 4S, lying on the edge of a seat . There wasn’t anyone else in that part of the carriage. It was in flight mode, so the ‘Find my iPhone’ function would have been inoperable.

I don’t have an iPhone, but I’m prepared to bet there are lost property rooms packed with dozens of lost iPhones/Pads all over the world, particularly in airports and train stations.

They are unable to be reunited with their owners because Apple’s security features make it impossible and the owners themselves haven’t planned for their possible loss.

Here are the issues:

The lockscreen

This is the first hurdle most people will fall at. Unless you know the code, you can’t get into the contacts to start ringing obvious numbers, eg. Home, or Mum/Dad.

The simplest thing here is to take a photo of your contact details and use this as your lockscreen wallpaper. It’s in the Settings menu.

iOS wallpaper setting screen

I don’t know anyone who alters this.

There were a couple of other things I thought were worth trying before resorting to phone hackery.

SIM card details

I removed the SIM card and tried it in another phone. ‘Find my iPhone’ wasn’t running, but if the SIM was still enabled, the owner would hopefully try to ring their phone.

Alas, the AT&T SIM was either blocked already, or had never been enabled for the UK phone network. I also had a look for any contacts that were saved on the SIM. Nothing there either.

The hack

Now the technical bit.  Getting past the passcode is boringly unsophisticated. It’s a brute-force attack where your computer runs through every possible 4 digit combination and then tells you what the code it. It takes about 30 minutes, max.

I used the Gecko iPhone Toolkit for this.  This exploits a previous iPhone vulnerability, so you must also put the phone into firmware update mode and inject an earlier version of the firmware into the device.

The beauty of this hack is that it maintains all the existing phone data.

Once I had the code, I was immediately able to see the owner’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, so I contacted him on both.

In the contacts. I found a number for Mum/Dad. I also saw the phone did have the icon for Find my iPhone, so I turned off the flight mode and connected the phone to my own Wifi, so the phone could start signalling home.

Finally I flicked into the Email, to find that address too. Here I struck lucky.  With Wifi now on, the phone updated the inbox and the first message to pop in there was the copy of the online form the owner had filled in with the railway company.

It had a UK number in there as a contact point. Bingo!

I rang the number, and learned that unfortunately the owner was on a plane back to the USA, but his friend Nick, (who handily lived on the same tube line as me) would come and get it straight away.

So I found the phone at 2300 on a Sunday night, and it was in Nick’s hands by 1800 on Monday. Warren, the owner got it back later that week and was mightly pleased.

For the rest of us – plan for loss

I firmly believe that most people would do the right thing and try to get the phone back to its owner. But good grief, how many people would be as geeky as me?

I suspect many phones, even finding their way to an official lost property office, just languish there.

If you have a smartphone, take a look at it and think how anyone would get it back to you if you lost it. Why not put your contact details on the lockscreen right now?

iOS users can do this by replacing their lock screen wallpapers (screenshot above) .

Android users go to Settings > Lockscreen > Owner Info (if you have Jellybean).

Settings > Security (if you have Ice Cream Sandwich).

I always invite comments, or you can tweet me @robf.


Written by Robert

21 July, 2013 at 11:12 pm

Posted in Mobile, Technology

Tagged with , , , ,

18 Responses

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  1. Nice idea.
    Owner information is an option on the lockscreen on Android.
    You can also add text – very useful ICE if you keel over in the street;)

    Al T.

    24 July, 2013 at 8:25 am

  2. It’s almost as if they want you to lose your phone so that you’ll buy another.

    Frank Bath

    24 July, 2013 at 8:34 am

  3. My Android phone has my contact details on a sticker, on the inside of the battery cover.

    Andy Mabbett

    24 July, 2013 at 10:48 am

  4. Thank you for this – I just wish someone had returned my phone – had it less than a month and left it on a station platform at 6 in the morning – it had already gone when I made contact with the station 15 mins later 😦


    24 July, 2013 at 12:32 pm

  5. simpler suggestion: when you connect an iphone to a computer (locked or not locked), it gives you the chance to import photos. So include a photo that includes contact information.


    24 July, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    • Hi James, is it really simpler? Having something on the lockscreen means you just need to look at the lockscreen. Putting a contact photo in your device needs:

      a) someone to know to look for a photo
      b) someone to actually know *how* to plug in and check


      24 July, 2013 at 4:37 pm

  6. […] Hat tips: Guardian Technology Blog, MediaBiz Tech […]

  7. […] Very informative post about how one techie got an iPhone that was in flight mode back to its owner. Robert Freeman’s post about how he got an iPhone back to its owner. […]

  8. […] post first appeared on Rob Freeman’s personal blog at…. It’s reposted here with […]

  9. […] always invite comments, or you can tweet me @robf. Or leave a comment […]

  10. Why not just put an address label or sticker on the back of the phone?
    If you add the contact details to the lock screen it get obscured by emails/messages/alerts, etc and what happens if the phone is powered down?


    26 July, 2013 at 3:48 pm

  11. […] post first appeared on Rob Freeman’s personal blog at…. It’s reposted here with […]

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