I had a sobering experience in Buenos Aires just before Christmas - I lost my iPhone. For the following few days I retraced my steps in my mind...I'd either left it in a taxi in 100 degree heat or it had been pick pocketed in a crowded Galerías Pacífico shopping mall.
More importantly I'd left it wide open with no password protection which meant whoever had it could access my email and other materials through it. I'd been using it with data roaming turned off to text local friends and to get onto wifi in cafes and had been keeping it close at hand.
Fortunately the period where my accounts could have been compromised was short: I had been using it in a cab and reached for my pocket a few minutes later to take a photo of a huge Christmas Tree festooned in crystals - only to find it wasn't in my pocket anymore.
We jumped back into another taxi and went back to the place we were staying were I immediately got on my laptop to change my passwords and then attempted to contact AT&T via their website in the USA to disable my account (I had visions of pick pockets making festive international calls on my phone and with data roaming turned back on browsing the web...).
AT&T are not contactable via the web for this sort of emergency internationally - their website returned messages stating it only works with internet explorer when I attempted to email them, so I had to ask my son (who fortunately was in the US) to call them to put the account on hold.
Crisis averted I beat myself up for not keeping to my usual security standards, and was annoyed to be more focused protecting a backpack instead of my pockets in a place I'd been warned to be careful about petty crime.
The story has a happy ending: I was checking my email a few days later on the BuqueBus high speed ferry back to Buenos Aires from Uruguay and was delighted to receive a note from the president of Itochu Argentina no less, Shuntaro Hasegawa, telling me one of his Argentinian friends had found my phone in the cab, and he had it at his office for safe keeping.
Because my phone was not password protected they had been able to flip the user interface into Spanish and found my email address. Happily Itochu's office was very close to the port where I was landing and later that afternoon I was reunited with my phone.
If you're reading this Shuntaro san and friends, thanks again for doing this! (Earlier on our trip we had found an ipod in the bedside drawer of our room and handed it in, so there was element of 'paying it forward' about all this honesty and serendipity).
The reality of our modern smart phones and devices are that you are walking around with a lot of sensitive personal (and often business) information in your pockets and bags which are highly vulnerable, so having had this lucky escape I decided to be a lot more careful going forward.
I Was Untraceable
It was only because my iPhone wasn't password protected that allowed Shuntaro san to act with integrity and get it back to me: if my numeric code protection had been turned on the phone had no information that would enable the finder to know who owned it.
Engraving your contact information on the back of the phone would be a good solution, but I determined that the lock screen image that was on the phone at the time ( a door knocker on a Buenos Aires public building) was attractive but could be a lot more useful going forward.
I therefore created the screen below with a reward message and my contact details that will be the only thing visible on my now permanently numerically locked phone if I lose it again or it gets stolen: I left a gap for the space where the missed call message would obscure the text and used all available real estate to make it easy for anyone finding my phone to do the right thing next time.
This is an iPhone screen capture so if you want to duplicate this for yourself save the image as a template for where your type should sit.
Next time I'm abroad I'll make sure to update the reward message in the relevant native language. I typically have my business card attached to my password protected laptop body in case that ever goes missing.
One last point: old smart phones you may still have on the shelf are very useful on foreign trips. I typically start extended work stays abroad getting a sim sorted out for my unlocked wifi modem. I learnt during my time in Argentina that I could also have put a local pay by consumption sim in my old first generation iphone (if you jail break it) or other unlocked phone, which means you have a local phone.
While the same security concerns outlined above are still applicable, with a voice and dataplan you can keep your latest phone in the safe and just use your last gen phone.