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16 September 2023

Now mine has been stolen, I realise how personal a phone is

I’ve lived in London for nearly 32 years and this is the first time it has happened to me, and its loss feels like a violation.

By Pippa Bailey

Self-loathing reached a new high (or should that be low?) this week when I heard myself pleading with the impenetrable insurance claims handler: “But I need a phone.” It is true, though. I didn’t mean it in an existential, I-feel-crushingly-anxious-if-I-don’t-look-at-my-phone-every-three-minutes way, but on a practical level, life has become a whole lot harder since last Saturday.

It started off well enough. It was due to be a hot day, so I was up early and on my bike, heading for Hackney. A coffee and a pastry in London Fields for breakfast, and then on to one of my favourite fabric shops. With three and a half metres of hammered silk-satin (beautifully fluid in a mustard gold, to be sewn into a gown for a black-tie wedding next month) safely stowed in my bag, I affixed my phone to the bracket on my handlebars and paused at a junction to input my next destination on Citymapper. It was over before I had fully grasped what was happening: something out of the corner of my eye over my right shoulder, and then two balaclavaed men – or, perhaps, boys – were cycling away, my phone in one of their hands.

[See also: We must do more to protect the children of YouTube]

It is remarkable, I suppose, that, having lived in London for nearly 32 years, this is the first time I have lost a phone. You see such snatches happen, fairly frequently, to pedestrians, but it had never occurred to me that it might happen while on my bike. People have since asked why I didn’t cycle after them, but it has always struck me as comically pathetic when people run after grab-and-go thieves; knowing when you are beaten is a hallmark of maturity. And even if I had caught up with them (which I wouldn’t have done: I am a cyclist who stops at traffic lights, and something tells me they are not), what was I going to do? Say, “Excuse me, but you appear to have my phone. Please could I have it back? Thanks everso”?

The inconveniences begin immediately. Some kind onlookers ask if I want to use their phone to call someone, but the only phone number I know is that of the family home I grew up in, long since defunct. What I should really have done was ask to use their maps app, because my first challenge is how to get home without mine – trying to concentrate on retracing my route while the adrenaline courses. It’s just a phone, I tell myself, though the truth is a phone is a strangely personal thing; its loss feels like a violation.

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Home, I google “what to do when your phone is stolen”. I wipe my phone remotely. I cancel my SIM and order a new one. I borrow my flatmate’s phone to call my banks (why do I have four?!): because I use Apple Pay, they cancel my cards as a precaution. I file a police report, though I know nothing will come of it, and an insurance claim; they tell me they will phone the next working day, and I hope they are cleverer than that. I change the passwords on my emails and social media – though I know my phone’s new “owners” likely aren’t interested in my data, just what little money they can get for the handset (and the joke’s on them, really, because the battery life is dire). At this point, I’d buy it from them myself, just to save the hassle.

I am left with one working bank card – my credit card, for which I purposely do not know the Pin. The more hurdles put between me and using it the better – until now. I cannot buy anything online with it either, as doing so requires transaction authentication: a code sent to my phone (the problem is the same for logging in to my work emails). I cannot so much as buy credit on Skype so I can call my insurance company; M— has to lend me his card. Nor can I log in to online banking on my laptop, as that requires a security code… generated in an app. People on live chats keep asking if I have a second device – another phone, iPad or Apple Watch? – but no, I am a simple person with just the one phone (normal, I thought). Even my gym requires you to scan a QR code in an app to enter. Having left my watch at M—’s earlier that week, I no longer have any means of telling the time when out. Thank God I still keep a paper diary.

And so here I am, pleading with the insurance claim handler, that this isn’t just a broken TV or a stolen bike: I really, truly, need a phone; it is essential, the matter is urgent. I become more feverish with every sentence, all the while knowing it is futile. I understand, says the woman on the phone, in a tone that suggests she’s said this exact thing to at least 500 people already today, but we have three working days to review your claim…

[See also: Inside a cupboard, I found the solace of solitude]

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This article appears in the 20 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers