home icon

The Ultimate Tech Nightmare: A Lost Tablet

What to do if yours goes missing, plus tips for keeping your mobile tech safe

By Linda Bernstein | March 20, 2013
Contributor Photo

Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches social media at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

I had forgotten to switch my iPhone off, and it rang in the middle of a conference I was attending last week. Sheepishly, I brought it to my ear.
 
“Hello?” I whispered. “We have your iPad,” said the unfamiliar voice on the other end.
 
Thus began a 10-hour, totally preventable technological misadventure. I was lucky: I got the device back and was out just $45, but the level of anxiety I experienced was incalculable.

How It All Began
 
The day had started like most others: I stashed my iPad in the Velcro-closed pocket in my computer case and took the subway to Columbia University, about two miles north of my Manhattan apartment. For eight hours I blithely took notes at the conference, tweeted on my laptop, socialized, scarfed down lunch and networked like a social-media pro, all the while completely unaware that my tablet was no longer in my possession.

So when I received that call at 5 p.m., I was caught completely off-guard. My first emotion was shock. My second, relief. Quickly a third reaction set in: panic. All my data — passwords, pictures, even some financial documents — could be accessed through my iPad, and, totally uncharacteristically, I had not enabled the lock code that morning.
 
The young man who called said he was living in a dorm at Brooklyn College, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, an hour and a half away by subway. As soon as I hung up the phone, I checked “find my iPad” on my laptop, and my tablet showed up exactly where the kid had indicated. That immediately ratcheted up my trust a notch.
 
(MORE: 7 Steps to Protect Your Online Security)

How I Got My Tablet Back

Flatbush isn’t the kind of neighborhood a woman wants to wander through alone at night, but, I told myself: (a) I had no choice, and (b) there was a security guard at the well-protected building, so I probably wasn’t in that much danger.
 
Still, this wasn’t going to be fun. I was pissed off at myself and kept conjuring up images of pierced and tattooed cyber-thieves draining my bank account or perverts finding photos of my beloved grandnieces and –nephew.
 
After an interminable ride and a brisk five-minute walk, I arrived at the dorm and was buzzed in by the security guard. Within moments 18-year-old Andrew appeared in the lobby with a couple of friends. To suss out whether this had, in fact, been an accident or whether I’d been robbed (and more was coming), I asked him a number of pointed questions.
 
Andrew, who seemed credible, explained that he had been on his way to upper Manhattan early that morning and had dozed off. When he woke at his station, he found an iPad on the seat beside him. Why did he take it with him when he left the train? He said he has lost cell phones and saw this as an opportunity to do a good deed.
 
As I talked to him and his friends for a few minutes about their schoolwork and, more interesting to them, their band, Jamazon, I also discreetly checked my tablet. The only app they’d opened was Facetime, and because there was still 97 percent of battery remaining, I determined that I hadn’t been hacked (3 percent of battery usage wouldn’t have given them time to do much). 
 
I gave the kids $40 and told them to buy pizza. As the door to the lounge closed behind them, I heard loud whoops. What a break that these young people were more excited by two large pies than a $300+ piece of technology.
 
(MORE: What I Did When My Email Was Hacked, Besides Panic)
 
What I Learned From Almost Losing My iPad
 
I felt like the luckiest unlucky person in the world, but of course, the minute I got home, I changed every password for any site that contained financial or personal information (banks, PayPal, social media). I was too wired to sleep, so I took a mental inventory of everything I had learned from my terrible tech day. The big takeaway: Even tech pros (like me) are vulnerable. And interestingly, not all of the lessons had to do with technology.
 
1. Keep all devices passcode-locked when you travel. Most laptops, tablets and smartphones all have locks you can easily activate so someone can’t simply pick up your device and start using it. Turn on the device with this option, and you’ll see a screen that asks for a password. And yet most of us never bother because we’re too lazy. In reality, these four-digit locks can be undone by a professional hacker, but they will stop an amateur thief.
 
2. Make it easy for a good Samaritan to reach you. Put a sticker on the back of the phone or computer with your cellphone number.  You should also quit your browser if you’re taking your laptop out of your house. Open tabs usually include your email, and if a crook gets into that, you could wind up in big trouble. A pain? Yes, indeedy. Prophylactic safety? Yes, indeedy.
 
3. Know how to check for “damage” should you lose (and then recover) digital equipment. The first thing I did was determine which apps had been opened and the level of battery charge. I also opened my address book and saw it was still on the last page I had looked at. I called Apple as soon as possible to change my ID and make sure no one else had tried to get into my account. And I changed all my passwords to accounts that contained personal or financial information.
 
4. Never keep all your tech (or any valuables) in one bag. You know the way the president and vice president always fly in different planes? Same deal with tech. If you’ve got all your devices in one pouch and it gets nabbed, you lose everything. Although I had my laptop and tablet in one bag, I only lost the iPad because it had slipped out. Because I still had my MacBook, I was able to check the location of my missing iPad. Next time I take both devices anywhere, they go separately. And the phone stays in my pocketbook. (My husband has one of those geeky belt-clip cases; other men I know keep theirs in a pocket.)
 
5. Don’t trust Velcro. But don’t we already know this? Velcro pulls open with almost no effort — that’s why it’s used on kids’ sneakers. And the older the closure, the iffier the stick. Worn Velcro is probably the reason my iPad slid out. From now on, I’m sticking to pockets and bags with zippers.
 
6. Check and double-check your possessions. Get yourself very well organized before you leave home. Make sure you know exactly where everything is. If you load up two bags (and now we all will, right?), make sure you have them both at all times. If you put your tablet in a pocket of your computer case, confirm it’s still there throughout any trip, so if it should go missing, there will be fewer places to hunt it down. And do the same for all your devices.
 
7. Use strong passwords. If you have passwords stored in an app on a mobile device, scramble them so that they’re nearly impossible to crack yet still easy to remember or opt for a password manager that generates a random and unique password for every site that asks for one. This way, you don’t have to remember a dozen different codes, just the master password.
 
(MORE: New Phishing Scams: Don't Get Hooked)

8. Don’t succumb to fear or paranoia. There are lots of nice people out there. Why in this age of covetable tech devices and rampant identity theft Andrew rescued my orphaned iPad and went out of his way to call me I’ll never know. But everyone who hears my story first says, “Wow, you were lucky,” then adds, “But I’d do the same thing.”

9. Reality check: There are worse things than a lost device. Twelve hours after my incident, I witnessed a true nightmare. My longtime neighbor dislocated her hip, and through the walls of our apartment building, we could hear her shrieking in pain. I called 911 and stayed with her for two hours until the Emergency Medical Service was able to move her into an ambulance. My neighbor is not elderly or infirm. She is one year older than I am. Watching her, I was reminded that the most important thing in life is indeed our health.

So what would I have done had I discovered my iPad was missing and not received a call? First, call Apple to delete all the information — “bricked” it, as the kids say. I love my tablet, but my data and my personal identity are worth a lot more to me than a replaceable piece of technology.

I know I’m a terrific example of “all’s well that ends well.” But I may not be so fortunate again. I am about to leave my house for a meeting. And yes, you know it: My iPad and iPhone are locked and labeled, and in separate bags.
Newsletter
Next Avenue in your Inbox

Each week we'll send you stories, perspective and advice.