Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Death by theft, water and gravity: Smartphone horror stories

Heather Kelly, CNN
Zach Hasty tells CNN iReport his broken phone was a great ice-breaker at bars.
Zach Hasty tells CNN iReport his broken phone was a great ice-breaker at bars.
  • Forgetfulness, gravity and clumsiness are just a few ways to lose or ruin a phone
  • Here are some sad stories of smartphone woes
  • One woman had her new phone snatched on the New York subway
  • A man placed his phone on a roof and watched in horror as it slid off

(CNN) -- There are many ways to lose or ruin your smartphone. Forgetfulness, crime, gravity, anger, intoxication, acts of God.

The devices are increasingly tied into our lives, and being without them can be a huge loss. They're also not cheap, especially if you're not eligible for a carrier-subsidized upgrade.

But between theft, water damage and our own clumsiness, accidents happen. Here are some stories of smartphone woes. Share your own in the comments.


Smartphones are easy to spot, steal and resell, making them a popular target for thieves. Mobile apps have been created specifically for tracking down misplaced or stolen mobile devices, and police are learning to handle the cases.

China's smartphone boom
iPhone 5 is successful despite flaws
CNN Explains: Cell phones and radiation
Distraction: iPhone 5 glued to ground

The year 2008 was a different time -- there was not yet a Find My iPhone app to aid vigilante justice. That's the year Jessica Jenkins, a 5-foot-1 broke grad student, splurged on and was quickly separated from an iPhone 3G.

While riding the 6 train in New York City late one night, Jenkins took out her new phone and started playing a maze game.

"Normally I was careful to keep the phone out of sight while traveling, but it was late and I was bored and, like a little kid with a Gameboy, excited to play all these new games," said Jenkins.

Suddenly, a teenage boy about twice her size ran past, grabbed the phone out of her hands and dashed through the train door. Jenkins chased the thief full-speed and managed to grab him by the shoulder, but he got away with her phone.

When Jenkins called the NYPD, officers were more concerned about her physical well-being than the fate of her smartphone. Angry but unhurt, Jenkins took the subway home where she still had an old Nokia bar phone. She immediately reactivated and dropped $5 on Tetris for the "dumb" phone. ("I am really, really good at cell phone Tetris.")

Jenkins stuck with feature phones until 2011, after her heart and wallet had time to mend, but she's still incredibly cautious in public.

Now she lives in the Bay Area, where she works as an immigration lawyer. She never takes the iPhone out on San Francisco public transit, except for Caltrain, which ferries many workers to and from their jobs in Silicon Valley, because it "somehow seems safer since it looks like an Apple commercial on there during rush hour."


Smartphones and water do not mix. But 70% of our planet's surface is covered with the stuff, so statistically they're bound to meet.

Photo producer Amber saw not one but two of her iPhones die watery deaths, one glamorous and one in a toilet.

While working on a photo shoot in Bordeaux, France, she was (playfully) pushed into a pool with a smartphone still in her pocket. The phone was her primary way of communicating with everyone working on the shoot. She took it to the Apple store in Paris, but they couldn't revive the phone. She ended up borrowing an older iPhone 3G to use the rest of the trip.

Cut to two years later, when Amber's adventurous 1-year-old daughter decided to toss mom's iPhone 4 in the toilet. She somehow firmly lodged it into the drain, where it became stuck.

"I'm trying to pull it out before the phone is 100% damaged, trying every tool known to man as fast as possible. The 1-year-old is jumping all excited at the show, screaming because she wants to play with me in the toilet," recalls Amber.

It didn't work. The phone stayed stuck until her husband came home eight hours later. Photos of the wee phone-destroyer's first birthday party were all lost.

Amber wasn't eligible for a new phone yet, so she had to pay full price for a new device. She also sprung for Apple Care and a $90 waterproof case.

Though it didn't work with Amber's phones, sometimes a device can be revived after getting wet. One common remedy is to make sure the phone is off and submerge it in uncooked rice overnight, which will draw out the moisture.


We've all seem them, the people with cracked screens who still use their smartphones. Usually the cracks just create a little web over the screen, and the phones are still perfectly usable. But not all the time.

CNN iReporter Terry Balmer, a 20-year-old college student, was hanging out on his roof with friends when he placed his phone down in what he thought was a secure spot. He did not consider the dangers of receiving a text while the phone was on vibrate. Yes, a few minutes later he watched his phone slide down the rooftop and plummet to the ground.

"Hearing the phone hit the cement below was one of the most gut-wrenching sounds I had ever heard, and I don't think anyone has ever climbed down from a rooftop as fast as I did that night," Balmer told iReport.

The damage wasn't fatal. The phone still worked, but the glass was cracked and all but one section of the screen had gone black. Even black, the touch screen still worked. Amazingly, Balmer found a way to make the phone usable.

To read a text message, he would take a screenshot, go into the Photo Roll, and move the image around to read what it said. Unable to see the keyboard, he typed from memory. To make a call, he had to have a person's number memorized. And to listen to music, he learned to navigate through his collection by memory.

He even uses it as a camera, explaining, "I just have to kinda guess what I'm taking it of but it usually works out and they all turn out normal on my laptop."

It's been seven months, and Balmer is still using his iPhone. At first he didn't replace it because he was broke, but now he's grown attached to it.

"Over time this phone has become almost a part of me (as weird as that sounds). I just can't believe that it has survived this long so I feel bad just pulling the plug on it."


Balmer's experience is not unusual. Oftentimes smartphones are, in the words of Miracle Max, "only mostly dead." You can learn to cope with your hobbled device, you can drop money on having it fixed by a professional or you can attempt to fix it yourself.

While attempting to grapple with a screaming child and a car seat, Brian Buizer dropped his month-old Evo 4g smartphone, and its screen shattered. (If there is a theme here, it is that children are bad for the health of smartphones). The company wanted to charge Buizer $150 to replace the screen on his $200 phone.

He decided to replace the cracked screen himself using instructional videos on the Internet, a $20 replacement screen and a set of small drivers and pry tools. The surgery took just over an hour, but there was a small crack in the frame that held the glass. Over the past year and half, a fine white dust found its way into the phone through that crack, settling between the glass and touch pad, accumulating in the center of the screen where he scrolls most.

"I am guessing this is from static build up. Whatever causes it, I now have a hazy white spot directly in the center of my screen, said Buizer. "Needless to say, I can't wait for my new iPhone to arrive."


Finally, there are the people who bring on the damage themselves. The tinkerers, the geeks, the dreamers.

Designer Eliza Wee likes to mess with her devices, but admits she doesn't always know exactly what she's doing. The first time she tinkered under the hood of a smartphone, everything worked out just peachy.

She decided to root her Evo phone (rooting is a way of getting total control of the operating system, bypassing pesky safeguards and limitations put in place by the company that made the phone). She also put a custom ROM -- a standalone, customized version of the Android operating system -- onto the phone. She got the phone to work on a different carrier and was quite pleased with the results.

Her next phone was a Motorola Triumph. It was on Virgin Mobile, since she was on a mission to try out all the low-end phone carriers. She rooted the phone successfully again, but when she put on a custom ROM, something went horribly wrong. The external hard drive was no longer accessible and her phone was bricked.

"Genius that I am, I did all that two days before a work trip," said Wee. "I went to the Sprint store, and signed my life away for two years, after being license-free for years."

iPhone 5 users complain about purple photos

Part of complete coverage on
October 8, 2012 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
In the past 10 years we've seen cell phones transform into electronic Swiss army knives with a wild variety of functions and features.
October 9, 2012 -- Updated 1203 GMT (2003 HKT)
If you're like Derek Smith, you spend a lot of time on your smartphone. Then again, maybe nobody is quite like Derek Smith.
October 6, 2012 -- Updated 1403 GMT (2203 HKT)
I am part of a dying breed. I am among a quickly shrinking slice of Americans who have yet to step foot in smartphone land.
October 3, 2012 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)
If you're looking for a harbinger of the zombie apocalypse, look no further than all those people on the street pecking at their tiny, handheld windows into a private world.
October 2, 2012 -- Updated 1915 GMT (0315 HKT)
There are many ways to lose or ruin your smartphone. Forgetfulness, crime, gravity, anger, intoxication, acts of God.
September 28, 2012 -- Updated 0955 GMT (1755 HKT)
A Sumo wrestler talks on a mobile phone
It is a device that three quarters of the world's inhabitants have access to, but the words to describe it and etiquette of how to use it differ starkly across cultures.
September 27, 2012 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
While about a quarter of adults in the United States suffer from some form of mental illness, most of them are not getting adequate treatment, if any.
September 26, 2012 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
There are millions of cell phone users in the United States. But one day last week, there was one less. Here's how comedian Dean Obeidallah survived it.
September 26, 2012 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
In a world where people are glued to their smartphones every minute of the day, what happened to observing the people and places around us? And what is it doing to our brains?
September 20, 2012 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
Physical therapists have a diagnosis for the headaches, neck cricks and achy shoulders affecting smartphone users, gamers and e-mailers. They call it "Text Neck."
September 19, 2012 -- Updated 1549 GMT (2349 HKT)
Works of art photography aren't just for people with DSLR or film cameras anymore. Smartphones are helping create incredible art.
September 19, 2012 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
What if you found yourself stuck alone at a faraway airport -- with no money, credit cards or ID? Never fear, all you need is your phone.
September 18, 2012 -- Updated 1537 GMT (2337 HKT)
China is on the verge of a smartphone revolution. For migrant populations, such technology has served to liberate workers, restructuring their social identity.
September 14, 2012 -- Updated 1802 GMT (0202 HKT)
africa mobile phone boys
A little over a decade ago there were about 100,000 phone lines in Nigeria, mostly landlines run by the state-owned telecoms behemoth, NITEL. Today NITEL is dead, and Nigeria has close to 100 million mobile phone lines.
September 14, 2012 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
How does sleeping with your smartphone inches from reach affect your life? You might be surprised.
September 10, 2012 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
They've helped ignite the Arab Spring and given people better access to education and health care. How smartphones are changing the world.
September 20, 2012 -- Updated 2021 GMT (0421 HKT)
From the Samsung Galaxy S III to the next iPhone, here's a look at some of the most popular new handsets.
Many parents complain that cellphones, computers and tablets are dividing families. But some experts disagree.
September 10, 2012 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Ten years ago, I helped work on the next great revolution in digital media. It was going to be wireless. Only most people didn't know it then.