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. 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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  2. 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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  3. MP says:


    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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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 and love it.

    Andy C

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