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)


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

Doug B

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?

Mike M

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.


Steve K

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).

Mike F

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?


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?

Joe Smith

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

Doctor Gonzo

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.


This isn't exactly a new idea. There are lots of stories of people who located their stolen phone, but can't do anything about it. Police aren't going to chase GPS signals all day to recover phones. Cell phone providers don't have private police forces.


Why is stealing a cell phone prosecutable as "access device fraud"? Seems like trumped up charges, unless the accused actually fraudulently used the phone, which it doesn't sound like they did.

Christopher P

As attractive as the locating a lost or stolen phone feature may be, I think the notion of someone being able to remotely track your location could be enough of a disincentive to keep you from adding such a feature to your phone. One man's lost phone tracker is another man's girlfriend stalking app.


What if the telecom companies develop some sort of security feature? They'll have expended resources to do it, and then they'll charge people to get it, but what price? Soon some of the cheaper companies would be able to provide it for cheaper as a marketing gimmick and eventually it'll come free like texting. Like what Mike F said, why not just charge for new equipment instead of replacing the old one?
Also, the feature will require updating and the company will need to spend resources to retain customer goodwill, when the customer already thinks they are entitled to the service.


Was going to say what #5 said.

Kevin in McLean, VA

Mike F. & Dr. Gonzo, as a sales employee of a major cell phone service provider I can assure you that we do not want to sell you a phone at the unsubsidized price. Even at that price we earn no profit and we generate ill will from the customer. I understand that there applications similar to lojack and find my phone in development. One day this will be another option, along with phone insurance (that is expensive, I admit). Unfortunately the market for these services don't develop until the thieves start doing there thing.


This is done in the Computer industry, check out Computrace.


I placed a label on the battery cover(it will stil work once battery dies) of my phone instructing anyone who finds my phone to call me at work. Last year I lost my phone on a NYC bus and it was suprisngly returned to me. My view is that many people are honest, perhaps that hopeful thinking brings out the best in people.


Joe, how do you know the show is accurate?


I agree with RR, also most of the time the Location Finder in the iphone is every vague, and the proximity it gives is half a block... that's like finding a needle in a haystack.


So it's a case of a phone app catching the bad guys. It seems that more and more these little phone apps are changing lives. I even stumbled on a website that shows how more are beginning to tapping into that market to generate income.

Some say- (perhaps overstated but worth noting) that these phone apps will be bigger than the Internet in terms of overall size and very soon impact as there are about 4 billion or so cell users which is more than half the world's population. Wow.


The tracking of one's belongings, may it be a pet, vehicle, or mobile phone has become almost standard in our technology based world where seniors learn how to check their emails simply to be "in style". I believe this is one of those rare "win-win" situations where not only the individual wins, but society does too as a whole. Let's take Mike, for example. He has a phone and, afraid to lose it to a thief, downloads a "Find-my-Phone" sort of application where one is able to track the mobile wherever it is. Tyler the thief comes along and sees Mike's phone within reach and at a reasonable 'snatch-and-run' distance. He reflects for a moment on what he is about to do and realizes that if he gets caught because one of those new tracking applications, he will be the laughing stock of the thieving community. He decides to not steal the phone, or any other phone for that matter, and society wins at the hands of a tracking application because there's one thief less in the streets due to a decline in thieving success rates. But wait, there's more! Tyler the ex-thief then realizes that he lacks an income, and without a better alternative, choses to get employed as a janitor. Now the situation becomes a 'win-win-win' deal since the economy is benefitting from the series of events as well due to a new employed person with a steady income in the market. If Tyler decides to go to school and improve the value of his time and his human capital further, the world benefits even more from a professional who's not a thief, and everybody's happy. Tyler has a job and greater value, the economy is improved, the streets are a tad bit cleaner from thieves, and Mike, cautious as he is, still has his phone.
Technology improves day by day, bit by bit, and a step at a time. If tracking for mobiles becomes standard for every phone on the market, that such market will increase its efficiency, which could very well promote the growth of any given economy.