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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. MikeM says:

    Was going to say what #5 said.

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  6. 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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  7. Scott says:

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

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  8. 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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