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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COMMENTS: 32


  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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  9. RR says:

    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.

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  10. BSK says:

    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.

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  11. Christopher P says:

    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.

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  12. Alex says:

    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.

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  13. MikeM says:

    Was going to say what #5 said.

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  14. Kevin in McLean, VA says:

    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.

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  15. Scott says:

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

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  16. TSuss says:

    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.

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  17. Derick says:

    Joe, how do you know the show is accurate?

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  18. gary says:

    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.

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  19. Tim says:

    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.
    http://unlockcellphonecash.com

    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.

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  20. JeanCarloCMS says:

    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.

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  21. MartinieCMS says:

    For the clients of apple who own iphones, this is a great
    way of ensuring their product’s safety and insurance. However, did the creator of this app or users think about the police force and how it would be affected by the tracing app for iphones? True, the apple clientele has a chance of getting what is rightfully theirs, but at what expense? If the police receives 20 people a day reporting missing iphones, the police force will have to mobilize and pursue the thiefs. At this rate how many officers will be injured or killed by the end of the day, week, or month? Maybe David Segal’s story was enlightening about security and police effectiveness. But not all crooks have pellet guns, and most of the crooks (either from being poor or from gang participation) on the streets are desperate. Desperation tends to make human beings commit irrational things(or rational depending on point of view) such as shoot an officer and run as fast as they can. In the end, is it worth it to make the police force undertake unnecessary measures by distracting them from more dangerous situations? Surely not. Furthermore, Apple is happy to give you a brand new iphone 3G s for $199.

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  22. Darius says:

    It’s not that manufacturers don’t care enough to do something about it, but in a space that is as fast moving as mobile devices, it is difficult for them to handle everything all at once. The battle ground is usually thematic – at one point it was about having colour screen, and then it was camera (and then even better camera), and then it was wifi/3G, and lately it seems everyone is screaming Touch Screen. At some point it’s going to be theft protection, but that’s probably not the highest priority right now until one of the major brands bring this feature out as a big gun against the others.

    Ultimately free market will kick in – our product* has been packaged by Nokia in India for hundreds of thousands of users and it helps users recover lost phone and data every week – this is likely to drive all the other brands to do something similar soon to compete in India at least. Samsung already has a mobile tracker for some of their phones and we know that other manufacturers are looking into this space as it heats up.

    *Disclaimer – I am from tenCube, we provide a anti-theft product for mobile phones called WaveSecure (www.wavesecure.com) that helps you track down and lock down your lost phone, backup a copy of your data and remotely wipe it off to protect privacy.

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  23. Ian McKay says:

    This is similar to what could be done with the theft of works of writing.

    We could use computers to see that someone is is guilty of plagiarism. Software could search a database of voluntarily uploaded publishings and the internet. It could then be used to determine if a segment of writing has a high probability of having been copied from other sources. The work in question could then be reviewed to see if it was properly cited. This would rely in large part on authors uploading their works to a trustworth data site but just knowing that such a site exists would deter others form plagiarism.

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  24. dagny says:

    Years ago when cell phones were quite expensive, a friend of mine had his stolen from his car. He used a “social engineering” solution to get it back: He called his number and said “I hear you have a cell phone for sale”. He met the thief and persuaded him to return the phone. My friend was a martial arts instructor and ex military, so he was good a the persuation part.

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  25. Jim says:

    Not cell phone related, but semi related to the topic. The first photo on my digital camera contains my wife’s and my cell phone numbers with a request to call if found.

    It will make it easy for an honest person to return. It won’t matter if a dishonest person finds/steals it.

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  26. Jim says:

    I think one of the conjectures of the original NYTimes story was that stolen devices would still be used, providing revenue for the service providers, and the poor victim would just buy a replacement.

    What a way to increase your customer base!

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  27. MP says:

    RR,

    The police aren’t going to chase random kitchen utensils either–unless they are evidence linking a perpetrator to a crime.
    A stolen smartphone worth several hundred dollars is: a means to track a criminal very effectively; one of the few pieces of stolen property an officer can detect with precision on a suspect without violating his rights (track the signal to his person=reasonable suspicion); and, it’s presence the only evidence the officer needs to successfully prosecute the one holding it, even if he dumped your wallet/bag/car elsewhere.

    However, as Mike M’s experience shows us, the local police may avoid the case if they don’t have the training or technology to investigate it. Better to call the FBI–they have nationwide jurisdiction, and I’d bet the fact that any “connected” use of the phone–calling, texting, or one kilobyte of Web time–violates the “access device fraud” the punks in the article were hit with. National data lines and phone wires are protected by the FCC.

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  28. Larry says:

    Motorola just announced some new theft protection – of sorts. The new service will track down your phone (much like MobileMe) but also allows you to wipe its contents. Everything is backed-up to the Motorola Blur service, so you can buy a new phone, log back in, and automatically restore everything to the new phone.

    On paper, it sounds pretty good. It would be a huge disincentive to steal phones because your location would be tracked through a built in service running on all Cliq phones (instead of a third party add-on) and the original owner can turn your stolen phone to a useless paper weight.

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  29. George E. says:

    To the user Mike M. who said cops would rather write speeding tickets, I say this: I am a detective in a medium sized city and I have already recovered one laptop because of LoJack for Laptops and am currently working a case of a stolen laptop that is equipped with LoJack. I have recovered stolen property through a number of means (pawn reports, Craigslist) and am just as interested as the owners in doing so. I don’t “write tickets” but do put thieves in jail and love every minute of it. Your comment is without basis and rather juvenile, if I may be so honest.

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  30. Jrrd says:

    How ironic! My iphone was stolen in Italy on the day this post was written…unfortunately, all of the advantages of GPS technology, etc. are basically useless if the police don’t want to help. Instead of trying to do anything, they spent an hour explaining how there was no chance to recover stolen electronics in Rome. While I tend to agree, it’s extremely frustrating to deal with a lazy, unprofessional police department when trying to recover important property…a new laptop in addition to the phone.

    On a side note, don’t take you backpack off when in a train station in Italy…even if you try to stand guard vigilantly, the thieves have ways of distracting you long enough to grab and run…also, don’t travel with expensive electronics!

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  31. CMc says:

    I agree. My cell phones were stolen a month before this article was written. After I reported it stolen and turned it off, the thieves reactivated the account and started using my phone again. I wish I had known about the application. I just got the i-phone and was still learning about it. The police acted like they were going to help, but they received the phone numbers that they called and still couldn’t figure out who took it.

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  32. lost phone stickers would help says:

    All good info, but what if the phone were just returned to you by an honest person, which most folks are? A sticker with a trackable number would be a good second line of defence. I got one from http://www.micro-trax.com and love it.

    Andy C

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