The Trouble Returning a Lost iPhone

I really, truly hate losing things. Maybe that’s why I feel so bad when others have lost something that belongs to them, and I want to get it back to them if I can. I remember being on a bus in San Francisco when I was a kid and a person with down syndrome got off the bus and left some gloves behind. I remember finding a kid’s hat on a ferry, and wondering whether the kid was upset because he didn’t have his favorite hat. Maybe that’s why when I find something, I want to get it back to the owner, especially when that “something” is a cell phone. A cell phone isn’t just a phone anymore, it’s an entertainment device, and could possibly hold important photos, or information, and it usually costs a lot of money.

Now, I’ve found and returned a number of phones over the years, from the old flip phones, to fairly new iPhones, and it’s usually quite easy. You wait until the phone rings, then set up a meeting place. That’s how previous “cell phone finds” have gone (though once I may not have gotten it back to the rightful owner, and the cell phone may have belonged to a drug dealer). On Monday I came across my most recent find at a park, an older iPhone 4, but unlike past phone finds, finding the owner was anything but easy.

I quickly looked at this phone when I found it and noticed that it had no service, which seemed a bit odd because we were in the middle of the city, though we were in the middle of the river valley, which could block signals, I guess. I tried to unlock the phone, but it was protected by a PIN. Popped it in my pocket and brought it home to look at later. At home I discovered the phone still didn’t have service, and restarting it didn’t change anything. This phone wasn’t going to ring, so it was up to me to find the owner.

I decided to connect the phone to my computer to see if I could learn anything from iTunes. A dialog box popped up on the screen telling me that I had to enter the PIN to unlock the phone named “Hamin’s iPhone.” Ahhh… so the phone belonged to someone named Hamin. That’s great, but a last name sure would have been helpful. Entering “Hamin” and “Edmonton” into Google didn’t help much. Searching “Hamin” on Facebook didn’t help much, and neither did Twitter. “Hamin” was no “Madonna” or “Cher,” that’s for sure.

If I was going to return the phone to Hamin, I was going to need to get more information. The phone was locked by a PIN, had no cell service, and no WiFi. I decided to pop the SIM card out to see who the provider was. Telus. Okay, I wrote the number down on the SIM card and headed to the local mall that had a Telus store. I went inside, waited a few minutes and then explained the situation to the guy working there. He told me that there wasn’t much he could do with the number on the SIM card, since that’s not something they can look up. He would need the phone number, which we couldn’t get. No problem, I’d take the phone to the Apple store the next day (Tuesday), and surely they would be able to help me. At this point I realized the phone was probably an old phone that had been replaced by a new one, so the SIM card wasn’t active and was essentially useless.

Now, I wasn’t looking for a company like Telus or Apple to simply hand over Hamin’s contact information, since that would be a huge violation of a company’s privacy policy, I simply wanted the company to contact Hamin and let him know I had his phone and give him my contact info. I figured that would be something they could do, and it shouldn’t violate any privacy policy they would have.

Tuesday morning I headed to the Apple Store confident that they would be able to connect the phone to a computer, pull up the serial number and use that to look up Hamin’s contact information, send him an email (or call him), and Hamin would get his phone back. No such luck. Apple doesn’t do that sort of thing, at least that’s what the manager of the store told me. Now, I’m fairly confident they could do that sort of thing if they wanted, but they don’t want to. She told me to take the phone to the police and they may get in touch with Apple and they could sort it out. I have nothing bad to say about the police in Edmonton (I used to volunteer with them many years ago), but I’d have to think that getting Hamin’s iPhone back to him wouldn’t be high on their list of priorities. Taking it into the police station was going to be my last-ditch effort; essentially me giving up my quest to get Hamin his iPhone back.

I went back home a bit annoyed that Apple didn’t have a process for returning iPhones to people, but determined that there had to be a way I could pull this off. If only I could get past that damn PIN screen. I recalled reading about a number of vulnerabilities in the past, so I started searching for them. Different versions of the iOS firmware had different ways to bypass te lock screen, but I had no idea which firmware this phone had. It’s an iPhone 4, so it doesn’t have Siri, which some of the bypasses needed. Other bypasses worked if there was a missed call, but I had no way to call the phone to try this, since it had no service. I watched a number of Youtube videos, and none of them helped me get into Hamin’s phone so I could get some information and return his precious phone to him. I needed to know what firmware was on this thing if I was going to find the right hack to get past the PIN screen.

I did a lot of searching online, downloaded a lot of programs, but I finally found something that told me the firmware – 7.1.2. I even tried finding a program that would allow me to access the phone to read the data on it, but those were either extremely expensive (and limited to police agencies), or they needed the phone to be mounted in iTunes, which I couldn’t do because iTunes needed the PIN to be entered. More dead ends, but at least I knew the firmware version so I could do specific research into which exploit would allow me to get past the PIN screen.

The one that kept coming up involved having a missed call on the phone. You swiped this way and that way and turned things on and off and clicked on the missed call and then you were supposed to be into the main part of the phone. I needed a missed call on the phone, but no one was going to call the phone because it had no service! ARGH!! Then I remembered my neighbour, John (who I’m sure will comment on this blog post), is also on Telus. Kat, my wife uses Telus as well, but her SIM card is a different size. I asked John if we could try putting his SIM card into the phone to see if I could call his phone (which would now ring on Hamin’s phone) and then we’d have a missed call. He agreed.

So yesterday, Thursday, I headed over to John’s house and we put his SIM card into Hamin’s iPhone. I called the phone so it had a missed call, swiped this way and that way, turned this thing on and that thing off and… nothing. It didn’t work. The Internet had lied to me. I watched the YouTube video again, tried swiping things, and it still didn’t work. I was feeling quite deflated at that point, ready to take the phone to the police station and admit defeat, which I decided to look at the various alerts that had popped up when we had put John’s card into Hamin’s phone. You see, the phone had cell service with John’s card, but it also had 3G – data – and so various notifications had popped up. Facebook said there were 9 notifications, but didn’t say what any of them were. Instagram mentioned someone had “liked” a photo that Hamin had posted, and gmail had the subject of an unread message. I realized that if I could contact the person on Instagram maybe they were friends with Hamin and could tell him I had his iPhone. Maybe… or maybe this person just randomly liked photos of people they had no connection with, and if I said “hey, you liked a photo in the last few days and I need to get ahold of that person” they would have liked a hundred photos and have no idea who Hamin was. Then I decided to look more at the gmail alert, which at first glance appeared to be a spam message.

It turns out the gmail message would be the key to getting ahold of Hamin. The subject had an acronym in it, along with “ref.” Google told me the acronym was for an Edmonton soccer association, so I realized that Hamin must be a referee for the association. Surely they would know who he was if I emailed them, so that’s what I did. I composed a short email telling them that I had found an iPhone belonging to Hamin and that I’d like to return it to him, and I included my contact info. I was out running around yesterday, and the next time I checked my phone I had a missed call from a number I didn’t recognize. I checked my email and there was a response! The person with the soccer association had called Hamin’s dad, confirmed that he had lost his phone and sent him my contact information, and thanked me for taking the time to track Hamin down. I called the number and spoke to his dad, then we traded some emails back and forth.

Hamin is 12 years old, and he lost the phone earlier on Monday, the day I found it at the park. He’s gone on vacation for a month, but will be very happy to get it back when he returns. His dad will be coming by on Sunday to pick it up, and he thanked me very much for ensuring it got returned.

It wasn’t easy, but Hamin will get his phone back. Sure, I spent a few hours visiting Telus and the Apple Store, not to mention countless Google searches and trying out various programs, but the end result is a 12 year old is getting the thing he lost back, and that makes the time spent well worth it. Success!

Here are a couple of tips for ensuring you can get your phone back if you lose it:

  1. Turn on “Find my iPhone” if you have an iPhone. This allows you to send messages to your phone from a computer or another iOS device. You can also get the location of the phone, remotely lock it, and even wipe the phone if you decide it’s completely lost. However, the phone needs to have a data connection (either 3G, LTE, or WiFi) in order to work. I’ve started testing the feature every few months, just to make sure it still works.
  2. Create a special lock screen image that has your contact information. This is something I haven’t done yet, but I will now. Include a phone number someone can call if they find your phone (tip: don’t included your cell number, since that’s what you lost). This makes it easy for someone to get ahold of you, since your number is visible, and they don’t need to search for it. It also works if the phone has no connection, since it’s just an image on the lock screen. I have an old iPhone 3GS that I’m going to do this with since there’s no way to call the phone.
  3. Seriously, if you have an iPhone TURN ON “Find my iPhone”!!!
  4. Have you turned on “Find my iPhone” yet? TURN IT ON!

Thanks to Vincent at Connect2Edmonton (great forum for people in Edmonton) for the following info:

If you have an Android phone you can find your phone at
You must have location services turned on, on your phone.

If you have a Windows phone you can find your phone at
You can also ring, lock or erase your phone from here.
You can toggle a few options on your phone under Settings/Find My Phone

If you have a Blackberry you can find your phone at and search for “Blackberry Protect”.
You must have the Blackberry Protect app installed on your phone and use it to enable location reporting.

Of course all those items assume the phone has some sort of connection in order to work. The lock screen contact info is the only one that’ll work without a connection. I just went and added the info to all our phones and iPads in the house.

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