When your phone goes missing or is stolen, it’s normal to panic. Cellphones are our digital lifeline. We use it to communicate with friends and family, shop online and even manage our finances.
That’s why steps should be taken to limit the damage if your phone can’t be retrieved. Read on to understand the pros and cons of reporting it stolen and learn how to blacklist your phone.
What does it mean when a phone is blacklisted?
The cellphone blacklist is an international database of phones that are reported lost or stolen. Wireless carriers base the blacklist database on a phone’s IMEI.
“Every smartphone has a unique international mobile equipment identity [IMEI] number that, when put on the blacklist, will be prohibited from connecting to any cellphone service providers, even if the phone has a valid SIM card,” said Rachel Willson, investigative coordinator for the Smith Investigation Agency. “Unlike a SIM card, an IMEI number is a unique identifier that cannot be removed.”
The blacklist arose in response to a rapid increase in cellphone theft in Europe in the early 2000s. The GSMA, which is the trade association for global mobile operators, began developing security initiatives to track stolen phones. The IMEI database, or blacklist, was the association’s way of helping cellphone carriers and law enforcement combat mobile phone crime.
By 2012, U.S. carriers committed to blacklisting lost and stolen phones and sharing information with the IMEI database. “Many countries have blacklists and share this information on an international database so that a phone blacklisted in one country would be unable to connect in other countries,” Willson said.
Blacklisting is different from suspending your phone. When you notify your carrier that you want to suspend your phone, it can no longer make or receive calls or texts, and it can’t access any cellular data networks. Suspending your phone is a temporary measure that can be reversed. If you find your phone or the police recover it, it’s easy to unsuspend it.
Blacklisting is usually permanent. “The downside to blacklisting your phone is that you may not be able to get it reactivated even if you find it again,” said Chelsea Brown, CEO and founder of Digital Mom Talk. A blacklisted phone can access Wi-Fi, but not much else.
Even if you know how to blacklist your phone, make sure you’ve considered other options, such as remotely locking and wiping the device, tracking it, and suspending it through your carrier, before you take that step.
How can I blacklist a phone number?
Only your cellphone carrier can blacklist your phone. However, there are a few steps to take before you contact your carrier.
- Lock and wipe your phone. Most phones let you remotely lock and deactivate your phone and even erase your data.
- If you have an iPhone, an activation lock is automatically enabled when you set up the Find My app. Log into iCloud.com/find, select the device and activate “Mark as lost.” Follow the instructions to deactivate your phone.
- If you have an Android device, you can remotely lock and wipe your device if the Find My Device option is enabled. Log into google.com/android/find and click “Lock” on the device you want to deactivate and erase. Follow the instructions for your phone.
- Contact your carrier. Your carrier can either suspend or blacklist your phone at your request once you let them know it has been report it lost or stolen.
- If you have AT&T, call 1-800-331-0500. If you don’t have a phone, you can also log onto your AT&T account at www.att.com/suspend and suspend your device through the website. However, you will need to speak to customer service if you want to blacklist your phone.
- If you have Sprint, call 1-888-211-4727. You can also log onto your MySprint account, click the device you want to report, select “Options” and then “Report a Lost/Stolen device.” Follow the instructions for your phone. If you want to know how to blacklist your phone, you’ll need to speak with a customer service representative.
- If you have Verizon, call 1-800-922-0204 or log onto your My Verizon account to suspend your phone. From the menu tab, choose “Devices” and tap “Manage” on the device you want to suspend. Then select “Controls” and “Suspend Device.” Follow the instructions for your phone. If you want to blacklist your phone, you need to speak with an agent.
- If you have T-Mobile, call 1-800-937-8997 and ask the agent to blacklist your phone. Alternatively, you can log onto your My T-Mobile account and select “Report a Lost or Stolen Device.” You can also message an agent on the website and ask how to blacklist your phone.
- Change your password for any cloud services. Hackers can potentially retrieve information from a smartphone even if it’s been blacklisted, so it’s important to change your password for your carrier’s cloud backup service if you use it. You should also change the passwords for any accounts you access from your phone as an added precaution.
Protecting your phone and your personal information
“Losing a smartphone or having one stolen is a frightening experience; not only because of the value of the phone itself but because of the personal information stored on it,” said Willson. She recommends taking some precautions to better protect yourself in case this happens. * Enable the activation lock feature on iPhones or the Find My Device feature on Android. * Use strong passwords and enable multifactor authentication for any account that offers it, so a thief can’t access your personal information. “This is yet another example of how two-factor authentication and having a password manager can prove critical to smartphone users,” said Willson. * Do your due diligence before you buy a used or secondhand cellphone. “We recommend consumers do not buy used cellphones but instead purchase only from reputable outlets,” Willson said. Also, check the phone’s IMEI to see if it’s been blacklisted before you buy it. * Be vigilant about unusual communications. Hackers use phishing and other email tactics to steal personal information from your phone; an email lookup can help you decide if a suspicious email is safe to open. If you’re getting calls from an unknown number, a reverse phone search may suggest if the call is a scam.