How to track and locate a lost or stolen Android smartphone or tablet

Losing a smartphone or tablet can be devastating. As well as the financial hit you also have to consider the privacy implications because our devices can contain an enormous amount of personal data.

Thankfully modern devices come with built in theft protection in the form of location tracking and remote control. We’ve previously looked at general mobile security but here we’re going to delve into the tracking features found in Android tablets and smartphones.

How to enable location tracking on Android

In order to use tracking we need to enable Android’s location features. You’ve probably already got this activated as it’s required for various apps and functions, but if not a word of warning: you will need to accept anonymous location data being sent to Google.

To get started go to Settings > Location. If Location is off you can activate it here by hitting the switch in the top right.

Click Mode to configure how location will be determined. There are three options:

High accuracy
Uses GPS, Wi-Fi and mobile networks to offer the most accurate positioning, but at the expense of the most battery usage.

Battery saving
Disables GPS and relies only on Wi-Fi and mobile networks.

Device only
The standard GPS toggle. Doesn’t use mobile networks or Wi-Fi. If you click ‘Disagree’ when prompted to allow location data to be sent to Google this is the only option that will work.

There shouldn’t actually be much of a difference in power usage between any of these unless you’ve got an app which regularly requests location, in which case anything using GPS can impact the battery quite heavily, but play around with each and see if you notice any change.

At the end of the Location menu is Google Location History. Tap this to enable or disable location history reporting. This can be used to follow the movements of a device, but if you’re not happy about this data being sent to Google you can switch it off and still use the basic location tracking function.

Depending on your version of Android (we used 5.1) and manufacturer some of these settings may be named differently or found in other menus. If you're having difficulty consult the user guides for your device or search online for further help.

How to track and control a lost or stolen device

With location enabled on your tablet or smartphone you can now access this information remotely using a web browser.

Go to the Android Device Manager site and login with your Google account. You’ll be presented with a Google Maps screen and some controls in the top left corner.

Device Manager will automatically begin tracking the location of whatever device is selected in the panel. If you’ve got more than one Android device you can choose another by clicking the name and selecting it from the drop down menu. Update the tracking at any time by clicking the Locate device icon.

There are also three options available.

Ring - will cause your device to ring at full volume for five minutes or until the power button is pressed. Useful if you know it’s in the vicinity but can’t track it down.

Lock - lock your device with a new password, and optionally display a message. Very helpful if it’s lost or stolen as you can prevent someone using the device even if they know your screen lock code. And it can be used to supply contact info.

Erase - the nuclear option. Factory resets the device and erases all personal files.

Keep in mind that in order to use any location features your smartphone or tablet will need to be connected to the internet. However you can send the commands even if it can’t currently be tracked and they will be carried out as soon as it goes online.

Also note that any time you track a notification will appear on the device. This could alert a thief, so you should make use of the tools available as quickly as possible before they can take it offline, attempt to access your data or wipe the memory.