Find My Phone

David Segal had a wonderful piece in The Times on Sunday pointing out a missing market in theft protection.

“Tracking down cellphones is not rocket science.”

Corporations like Amazon and Sirius won’t help owners recover their lost gadgets, like cell phones or Kindles or the Sirius receiver. The article points out that “iPhone owners have a number of options to search for their handsets, including features that use GPS technology to send out virtual semaphores.”

I have the “Find My Phone” app which will automatically email the location of the phone to me if the application is ever launched. It relies on a good Samaritan or a curious thief hitting the app icon, but still it’s pretty ingenious. For iphone users who use Apple’s MobileMe, the “Find my iPhone” is even neater because it allows you remotely to ask where your lost or stolen iPhone is.

The feature is helping people track down their stolen phones, as in this example:

The victim, whose name has been withheld, told the Pittsburgh police that three robbers held him at gunpoint, which later turned out to be a pellet gun, and forced him to hand over his wallet, PIN number, and iPhone. After the confrontation he quickly called police and canceled all of his credit cards, but he didn’t stop there.

Later on in the day, the victim decided to use MobileMe’s Find My iPhone feature to attempt to hunt down the perpetrators, assuming they weren’t savvy enough to realize the iPhone’s capabilities and simply shut the device off. As it turns out, they weren’t. The Pittsburgh police were able to apprehend the suspects at a local restaurant after the victim had tracked their location.

The three suspects remain in police custody, and they will be charged with two counts each of access device fraud, conspiracy, receiving stolen property, and possessing instruments of crime.

These tracking technologies are near and dear to my heart, because they are parallel to what Steve Levitt and I looked at in our study of LoJack. When you install one of these apps onto your phone, you’re probably helping other iPhone owners because you’re making the activity of stealing any iPhone less profitable. Thieves who don’t know whether this is a protected or unprotected phone will be less likely to steal iPhones generally.

The real mystery to me is why gadget manufacturers don’t see theft protection as a business opportunity. Like LoJack, they could sell theft protection services where they promise to help track down and maybe even prosecute bad guys. In doing so, they would not only generate some extra revenues from people like me who put a value in getting our gadgets back (and getting the bad guys), but they also would be making all of their gadgets more attractive because they would generally deter some thieves from taking the devices.

Tracking down cellphones is not rocket science. In this old Forbes column, you can read about how I downloaded the cellphone calls that the thief was making and soon was talking to the thief’s girlfriend. Before you know it, a “friend” of the thief gave me back my phone at a local McDonald’s.

One of the simplest things a cellphone company could do is embarrass the thief. As Barry Nalebuff and I suggested:

Anytime a stolen cell phone is used, a computer would automatically call the same number just after the thief’s call is over. A recorded message would say: “This number has just received a call from a cell phone that was reported stolen. At the tone would you please identify the caller.” We think that this is better than just turning off the phone (at least for a short time) so that the thief can be outed and the trail can be marked.

The theft of a cellphone, or nowadays any device that is a receiver, leaves an electronic trail that can be used to find the phone and deter crime. The success of the iPhone tracking apps suggests that this is a market that is waiting to be more completely filled.

(Hat tip: Joshua Gans)

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  1. Nitin says:

    Couldn’t agree more, especially as phones go on to play a more important and intimate role in our lives.

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  2. Doug B says:

    Sprint has a similar feature called Sprint Family Locator which I can use to locate any of our family’s phones from my phone or via the internet. Great for when your teenager is out too late with his friends and you are wondering where he REALLY is. Of course, it also only works if the phone is on.

    Is it legal to implant a Lo-Jack device in your children?

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  3. Mike M says:

    This is an issue near and dear to my heart. Electronics and stolen credit cards are extremely easy to track given the resources and the motivation.

    For example, my Xbox was stolen in college. I’d have gladly paid the entire cost of replacing the Xbox to apprehend the folks that did it- even if I wasn’t able to have the actual Xbox back.

    At some point, I’m sure the theives registered and used the Xbox for Xbox Live. It seems to me that it would be extremely easy for Microsoft to match the identifying information from a box logging onto the system (which they arleady use to ban cheaters) with a list of Xboxes that had been reported stolen to the police. They could then either track down the “customer” through their ISP or even easier, used the credit card information that registered the account to apprehend the crooks.

    BUT the police would rather write traffic tickets than pursue justice for items like this. I believe actions such as this would lead to a significant long term decrease in theft. I understand that if the Xbox was never connected to the Live service it would be untraceable, but at least it would have a diminished use for the crooks and make stolen X-boxes less valuable.

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  4. Steve K says:

    I use a graphic that has my home (landline) number and address as my cell phone wallpaper.

    If an honest person finds my lost phone, there’s a chance it will be returned. (Blackberry Storm).

    I’d be happy to guy a LoJack type of application if it were available. I have one on my laptop (Retriever).

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  5. Mike F says:

    If the phone company helps you locate your phone, they’ve expended resources (employee time & infrastructure costs) while gaining little of value (fickle customer good will).

    However, if they can’t locate your phone, then you will need to replace it. You are likely still on contract, and you need a phone for their network, but you can’t get the subsidized price, as you already have a contract. Thus you are likely paying $200-$800 dollars for a new phone. Phone company gets a whole new unsubsidized sale.

    Which scenario has more incentive for the phone company?

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  6. Jeff says:

    What’s even cooler about the MobileMe service is that you can actually send text messages to the stolen/lost iPhone.

    Wouldn’t it be even neater if you could make it explode remotely or make it emit a loud-pitched shriek?

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  7. Joe Smith says:

    If you watch shows like “The First 48″ it is surprising how important cell phone records are in solving murder cases.

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  8. Doctor Gonzo says:

    Mike F hits the nail on the head: mobile phone companies would much rather you buy an entirely new phone than find your stolen phone. It’s really that simple.

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