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Technology That Can Help You Track and Find Your Lost Items

No more pacing the parking lot, checking the couch cushions, rifling through drawers

spinner image Photo of Tourist, Unrecognizable Person using map in phone app to navigate and find her parked car
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You don’t consider yourself the forgetful type, yet somehow you can’t seem to find your car keys — on a regular basis. Misplacing your phone or your reading glasses isn’t unusual. And just where did you leave your wallet?

OK, so maybe you’ve had a lot on your mind or you can’t remember small details as well as you used to. No worries. Technology can help you find your stuff.

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From tiny trackers and handy apps to personal assistants that can lend a helping hand, today's software and hardware might be all you need to locate everything from your car in a crowded mall parking lot to the TV remote stuck between sofa cushions.

Keep track of items tiny, even furry

Wouldn't it be great if you could attach a teeny thingamajig to all your things? If you couldn't find something, you simply could open an app to see where it is.

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Placing a Tile tracker on family pets can help you find them if they are hiding. If they’ve gotten beyond the tracker’s range, other nearby Tile users can be enlisted to help.

These trackers are available now. And they work quite well.

The Tile family of trackers is one of the oldest and best-known solutions. Attach a square Tile Mate, starting at $25 each or $100 for a package of four, though frequently discounted, to everyday items such as house keys, purses, suitcases, wallets or cats who like to hide.

If you can’t find the item, open the app and tap the name of the item, such as “Marc’s keys” or “Kellie’s purse.” The Tile will ring loudly up to 200 feet away and show you the item’s last known location on a map.

On the flip side, if you can’t find your phone, double-press an activated Tile Mate to make your lost phone ring, even if you’ve set it to silent.

The Tile Pro models (starting at $35 each or $100 for a package of four) also use Bluetooth, are more durable and have a range of up to 400 feet.

The newest members of the family are the Tile Sticker ($30 for one, $110 for a package of four), which is a much smaller, waterproof, adhesive-backed tracker that works up to 250 feet — ideal for TV remotes — and the Tile Slim ($35), a thin, credit-card-shaped tracker to slip into luggage tags, wallets and other hidden spots. It, too, works up to 250 feet away.

While your odds of finding a lost item drop considerably if it’s out of the house, you can leverage the community of Tile owners to help. Once something — or someone, such as your beagle who digs under the backyard fence to follow his nose — is marked as lost, if any opt-in member spots it, the owner automatically is notified with its location.

Apple releases AirTags

Apple has also released its own tiny trackers called AirTags ($29 for one, $99 for four), designed to help iPhone owners locate lost stuff.

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Apple's AirTags use ultra-wideband technology to more precisely lead you to your lost item’s location.

Just like a Tile, an AirTag that’s attached to a backpack, key chain, luggage tag, purse or TV remote lets you locate the item within Apple’s Find My app. You can also ask Siri to find your missing item, and the AirTag will play a sound if it’s nearby.

But unlike Tiles and Samsung Galaxy SmartTags ($30 for one, $120 for four), AirTags also use ultra-wideband technology to more precisely lead you to your item’s location. If you’re on an iPhone with a U1 chip — iPhone 11 family and newer — you’ll see a directional arrow that points you to an AirTag’s location and indicates how far away it is, in real time. Your location data and history are never stored on the AirTag itself, Apple says.

Now, here’s where AirTags, which debuted in 2021, really get interesting: If you left your backpack, say, at a friend’s house and out of Bluetooth range, the Find My network could help track it down. By leveraging the roughly 1.8 billion Apple devices around the globe, it can detect Bluetooth signals from an AirTag and relay the location back to you.

Plus, you can enter an AirTag into Lost Mode in the Find My app and be notified when it has been located. If someone finds your stuff, they can tap it using their iPhone or any near field communication (NFC) capable device and be taken to a website that will display how to reach you, if you set it up. NFC-capable devices include most newer smartphones, smartwatches and tablets.

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Other AirTag advantages include a user-replaceable battery that lasts about a year and simple setup. Just place an AirTag close to your iPhone to be recognized, and then give it a name, such as “Ed’s Backpack.”

You may need to buy an AirTag key ring or loop accessory to attach the AirTag to something. In the box, you only get the Junior Mint-sized tracker.

How a tracker can be misused

These small devices that can attach to just about anything and signal their location via a phone app have been around for nearly a decade. In that time, criminals have figured out ways to use them for stalking.

“I have found physical tracking devices hidden under the bumper of a car or in bags,” says Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. To combat this some trackers have stalker alert systems, making a chiming noise if separated from their owners after eight to 24 hours.

If your iPhone detects a suspicious AirTag or Chipolo ONE Spot tracker ($28 for one, $79 for four) moving with you, you’ll also get an iPhone alert. Android phone users can download the Tracker Detect app to check if an AirTag or ONE Spot is tracking them. To detect a Tile tracker, you need to install the Tile app.

– Lexi Pandell

Low-tech solutions can be helpful, too, such as the My Property ID Registry (from $39 for 10 ID tags), an inexpensive, police-accepted security system that works worldwide. Once you get the ID tags in the mail, register your stuff online — including the serial number of any smartphone, laptop, etc., which is what the police will need if you file a police report.

If someone finds what you lost, they simply go to the website listed on the tag, type in the Tag ID number, and you’ll be notified via email. Then you can arrange to get it back. Yes, it relies on Good Samaritans, but such people do exist.

A few options are specifically for pets, such as SmartTag microchips (from $225 for a box of 25), Halo Wireless Dog Collar & Fence ($699, plus subscription fees) and Tractive’s GPS Tracker for Cats ($50, plus subscription fees). Be sure to read how each one works, and note whether you'll pay a one-time cost or an ongoing service fee.

Find phones out of your grasp

Smartphones aren't cheap. Plus, you likely have sensitive data on them. Thankfully, locating a device can be easy.

Free apps and services such as Find My for Apple products and Find My Device for Android phones and tablets can help in a pinch.

Should your phone become lost or stolen, you can remotely lock it if you don’t have a passcode on it already; display a message, such as “Please call me for a reward”; wipe its data clean; or track it on an online map. But you need to set this up ahead of time.

When you realize your phone is missing, you’ll need to log in on another device or a web browser on a computer with the same account name and password as your phone.

For tracking to work, the device will need to be turned on; connected to the internet, either through a cellular carrier or Wi-Fi; and operating with at least some charge remaining in the battery. If all is set up correctly, you should see your phone’s last known location.

If your phone was stolen, never try to retrieve it on your own. Instead, contact police with any tracking information, such as the address where your device was located.

Stride confidently through parking lots

If you’ve ever had trouble remembering where you parked your gray SUV in a shopping center lot, outside a concert or at an amusement park, there’s a solution for that, too. Free apps can help you retrace the steps back to your vehicle.

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iPhones allow you to use the built-in Maps app to do the job, but you’ll need to set up the feature ahead of time.

spinner image Mobile phone display of Apple iPhone's "Find Your Car" feature on a map
Apple, Inc

You’ll have to enable Location Services and Significant Locations: Go to Settings | Privacy & Security | Location Services | System Services | Significant Locations. Next, you’ll want to enable Show Parked Location by going to Settings | Maps | Show Parked Location.

Make sure that your iPhone is paired to your vehicle's CarPlay or Bluetooth. If you can't find your car, open Maps, tap the Search field and type Parked Car in the field or choose Parked Car from the suggestions list. Tap Directions and choose DriveRide, Transit or Walk.

For Android or iPhone users, Google Maps can do the trick by letting you save your parking location.

Open the Google Maps app on your phone or tablet, and tap the blue dot that shows your location. Tap Set as parking location.

Your parking location will be saved in Google Maps until you remove it. You also can add notes about your car’s location, such as the spot number, and share your parking location with others.

When you need to find your vehicle, open the Google Maps app, tap the search bar and select Parking location. On the bottom left tap Directions.

If you choose, you also can get notifications for parking information, such as where you parked and for how long, which can be useful if you’ve been feeding a conventional meter for downtown street parking.

Let smart speakers take on brain overflow

You might already use your smart speaker, such as an Amazon Echo (from $40 though frequently discounted) or a Google Nest (from $49 though again often discounted), for playing music, setting kitchen timers or reading the news. But it also will remember where you’ve squirreled away things — if you tell it while the location is fresh in your mind.

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Amazon's 4th Generation Echo Dot with a clock debuted in late 2020.
Sipa via AP Images

Say something like “OK, Google” or “Alexa,” and then “Remember my passport is in the small drawer in the kitchen.” In the future, ask “Where’s my passport?” and your smarty-pants speaker will tell you where it is and on what date you mentioned the reminder.

Even if you didn’t put away your smartphone on purpose — perhaps it slipped out of your pocket as you wrestled with the dog — you can ask your personal digital assistant to find it. When you set up your smart speaker via the proper app, it became linked to your phone.

If you're the only one set up to talk to Google Assistant, you're ready to roll.

Say, “OK, Google, find my phone,” and listen for that sweet sound. Your phone will ring even if it’s set to Do Not Disturb.

Pat yourself on the back. You’ve just saved yourself 15 minutes.

This story, originally published Feb. 18, 2020, has been updated to include new information.

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