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)


Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Derick says:

    Joe, how do you know the show is accurate?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  2. 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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  3. 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.

    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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  4. 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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  5. 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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  6. 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 ( 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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  7. 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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0
  8. 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.

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0