How to find the owner of a lost or stolen iPhone

Every once in a while I have a reader ask me what they should do with a lost or stolen iPhone they've somehow come across. In most cases their biggest concern is finding the original owner, as it should be. Unfortunately that task sometimes proves to be a little tougher than some people imagine, especially if the owner has enabled a passcode lock. However, if the iPhone you have found is fully functional, we've got some tricks that can help you get in contact with the original owner faster than you may think!

How to get in contact with the owner of a lost or stolen iPhone

If you somehow end up in the possession of a lost or stolen iPhone, it's not always clear what the best thing to do is. Sadly, turning an iPhone in to a public establishment sometimes gets it stolen by a not so honest person behind the counter, or by a customer that saw you turn it in. If you'd rather take matters into your own hands in order to make sure the rightful owner ends up with it again, here are some things we'd recommend trying in order to contact them directly.

1. If there's no passcode lock, check their recent calls

No one likes invading anyone else's privacy but at the end of the day, there's got to be a little bit of an exception if you're serious about returning the iPhone. I've found two iPhones in the past that were both abandoned, one being at a local Starbucks. The first time, there was no passcode lock so I launched the Phone app and went through their recent calls. I looked for a number that they communicated with regularly. In this case, it was labeled as "Home". That was easy enough. I called it, the person's spouse answered and I explained who I was and why I had the phone. They showed up 20 minutes later to pick it up. Problem solved.

Unfortunately, things get a little more complicated if someone has used a passcode lock.

2. If there's a passcode, ask Siri for help

Most people don't realize that even if you have a passcode lock on your iPhone, you can bypass it to do things like place calls or send messages — unless of course they've disabled this functionality in Settings. However, it never hurts to grill Siri a bit. Here are some things you can try asking Siri by holding down the Home button from the Lock screen:

  • "Call home."
  • "Call mom."
  • "Call dad."

If the owner had relationships set up, you can also try things like "Call my wife." to see if that gets you any bites. The second lost iPhone I found was successfully reunited with its owner thanks to Siri and its ability to call a contact labeled "Home* without me knowing the passcode.

3. Keep the device powered on and answer incoming calls

The one thing you absolutely want to make sure you do is keep the iPhone charged and powered on. More often than not, once the owner realizes their iPhone is missing, they'll try calling it from someone else's phone. As odd as it is to answer a phone that isn't yours, it's in both of your best interest. If someone is calling them, odds are they have more relevant information that is of use to you. And if you're really lucky, it'll be the owner on the other side of the line.

4. Find the IMEI or MEID and contact their carrier

Every iPhone has a unique number called an IMEI (or MEID for some CDMA phones) imprinted somewhere on it. The owner's carrier can use this information to track the owner down and hopefully contact them. It's best to just visit the carrier's store where they can then take possession of the iPhone and handle it from there. If you can't, you can always call the carrier over the phone and start from there. While they can't release information about the owner, they most certainly can help you track them down. If the iPhone is powered on, you can tell what carrier they have by looking at the carrier name in upper left hand corner of the screen. The carrier name appears immediately to the right of the signal bars, or dots. The only thing you need to give the carrier is the IMEI or MEID number.

Here is where you can find IMEI or MEID info for each model iPhone ever made:

  • iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, and iPhone 5: Printed on the back casing towards the bottom
  • iPhone 4s, iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, and iPhone 3G: Remove the SIM tray and you will find the IMEI or MEID printed, as well as the serial
  • First generation iPhone: Printed on the back casing towards the bottom

If you aren't sure how to remove the SIM tray from an iPhone, you can follow our guide:

For even more help finding and recognizing an IMEI or MEID number, or any other identifying number for that matter, Apple has a great support article complete with photos you can take a look at:

You'll notice that the IMEI printed on all iPhones is 15 digits. If the iPhone owner in question has a CDMA carrier just as Verizon or Sprint, the MEID is the first 14 digits of that number, so simply leave off the last digit and you've got the MEID you need to give to the carrier.

Keep in mind that even if you found an iPhone that won't power on, you can always try calling different carriers in your area to see if they have a record of the IMEI or MEID. Since there aren't a huge amount of carriers in any one area, this process should still be relatively easy even without knowing the carrier off-hand.

A final note about lost or stolen iPhones

Keep in mind that many iPhone owners can either use Find My iPhone to track their device or they can call their carrier and report it lost or stolen. If the latter happens, that phone can then not be activated on many cellular networks, at least in the United States. There is no finder's keepers rule when it comes to lost property such as cell phones. If you find it and don't turn it in, it can still be considered theft. If Find My iPhone is activated and the owner successfully tracks you, they may have gotten law enforcement involved. So keep this in mind if you happen to stumble across a misplaced iPhone. The decisions you make from the second you pick it up can affect you too.

Your advice for finding the owner of a lost or stolen iPhone?

If you've ever come across a lost or stolen iPhone, how did you go about reuniting it with the owner? Did you perform any of the steps above? And if so, were any of them successful for you? Be sure to let me know in the comments!