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Most Lost Phones Never Get Returned, Experiment Finds

If you've ever lost a smartphone, you know all too well how frustrating the follow-up can be. If you find it, great; if not, where did it go? Who has it now? What is it being used for?

Czech antivirus-software maker Avast performed a small experiment to get some answers. The results are not reassuring; only 20 percent of Avast's lost smartphones were returned intact, and most of the rest were factory-wiped, with some shipped overseas.

Avast's report entitled "What Happens to a Lost Smartphone," details how company representatives in April scattered 10 Android smartphones in New York City and 10 in San Francisco. Each one had Avast Anti-Theft, Lookout Mobile Security and Clean Master security suites installed. (Avast  pointed out that only its software would survive a factory reset.)

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The report suggests that if you lose your phone, your odds of getting it back are not good. Despite visible contact information on each phone, only four of them made their way back to the Avast offices.

Most people who find lost smartphones, it seemed, were more than willing to take someone else's property, and the first thing they did in 15 out of 20 instances was to factory-reset the phone. If this happens to you, your odds of recovering a lost smartphone are usually minimal.

Thanks to its sneaky security software, Avast was able to track seven of the devices for several months, and four are still online.

"One device appears to have traveled via a transatlantic cargo ship before settling in India where the phone is currently being used," said the Avast report, which is not yet online. "One device flew to the Dominican Republic, one device landed in a pawn shop and one device appears to be with a taxi driver zigzagging the streets of San Francisco."

The people who found the phones had a pretty good grasp on how to make them disappear. All but one factory-reset the phone, although it took some of them more than 24 hours to do so, meaning the original owner could have tracked them down relatively easily during this time.

From there, the finders, or whoever the finders passed the phones on to, tended to change the SIM cards in order to get new phone numbers. At least one phone snapped a photo of a new user using Avast's software.

An experiment with only 20 phones is not large enough to draw any large-scale conclusions, but the data is telling: If you lose a phone, you're probably not getting it back, and the thief will probably have enough presence of mind to try to make it untraceable.

Avast Mobile Security and Antivirus, which includes Avast's anti-theft features, is free, and (according to Avast) more effective at tracking thieves than competing products, so it couldn't hurt to give it a try.