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How does a phone tracer work?

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Quick Answer

A phone tracer uses GPS satellites, cell phone towers and wi-fi triangulation to locate a particular mobile phone. The device must be powered on for the tracing software to find a real-time location. Some software, such as Apple's Find My Phone, gives the last recorded location if a device has been powered off.

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It is also possible to track a phone that does not have tracer software installed. Cell phone carriers store users' location information based on GPS data and tower triangulation, and may make this data available to law enforcement. Some carriers, such as Verizon, make this data available to customers for an additional fee. Verizon's version of this feature is called Family Locate; it allows the account owner to trace the exact GPS location of each device on the account.

For tracers not affiliated with a law enforcement agency and who do not wish to pay for extra features, social networking and geotagging apps provide a partial trace of a mobile phone's whereabouts. Popular apps that tag locations include Foursquare, Gowalla and Loopt. Users who have installed these apps check in at various locations, providing a time and date stamp along with the location. The disadvantages to this method are that a user must choose to install this software and use it on a regular basis.

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