David Pogue Recovered His Stolen iPhone From Three States Away. Could Anyone Do That?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 3 2012 5:38 PM

Find My Phone

What should you do when your cellphone is lost or stolen?

Take steps to keep your phone safe.
Take steps to keep your phone safe

Photograph by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images.

New York Times technology columnist David Pogue lost his iPhone on an Amtrak train earlier this week but recovered it yesterday after police found it in the backyard of a house in suburban Maryland. Pogue used Find My iPhone, an application that uses GPS signaling to allow users to view the location of their iPhone from a computer or other device, to pinpoint the location of his phone. He then tweeted the location to 1.4 million Twitter followers, who made Pogue’s stolen phone a viral phenomenon. For people without 1.4 million Twitter followers, are there good ways to recover a lost or stolen cellphone?

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

Yes, but most require taking steps ahead of time. Having some sort of mobile phone-recovery application, like Find My iPhone, installed is a good first step. Although this type of application won’t work if the phone is turned off or the battery is dead, it will tell you where your phone is if it’s powered on. It will also let you cause the phone to emit a loud noise for a couple of minutes, to help you find the phone if you are in earshot but not sure exactly where it is. Finally, an app like this can let you erase all of the phone’s data remotely, in case you resign yourself to the likelihood that the phone is gone forever and want to protect your private data. (These apps are available only for smartphones with GPS capabilities—owners of older models are out of luck.)

Another way to identify a thief is to hope that he or she will enter identifying information into the phone. If your carrier stores phone data on a remote network, you’ll be able to see texts and emails sent and photos taken from your phone, which might give you enough information to be able to track down a thief and ask for your phone back or offer a reward in exchange for it. If the thief refuses, you can try to alert the masses just as Pogue did, even if you’re not a famous writer. As Clay Shirky recounts in Here Comes Everybody, a woman recovered her cellphone after a friend publicly shamed the phone’s thief (whose pictures and email address they discovered via T-Mobile servers) on Digg.

Advertisement

You can also try filing a police report, on which you’ll be asked to include basic information like the date, time, and location of the theft and any identifying characteristics of the phone, including serial numbers (which are a good idea to record somewhere). However, unless you have a phone-tracking app installed to let you see the location of the phone, it’s unlikely the police will be able to do much to help you—and even if you do know the location of the phone, the police may not be willing to devote resources to recovering it. (Pogue says that since his story went viral, he’s “heard from many who could not persuade the police to act” to recover stolen phones.)

However, sometimes having filed a police report is a prerequisite for filing an insurance claim if you have cellphone insurance, which is an optional feature of many cellphone plans. Carriers can also suspend service to your stolen phone so that a thief won’t be able to rack up charges using your number.

CTIA, the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry, has recently pledged to compile an industry-wide database of stolen smartphone identifying numbers that will prevent stolen phones from being reactivated on any network—effectively rendering them useless to thieves. If the database is implemented as planned in October 2012, cellphones might become much less tempting to thieves than they are now.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Is It Offensive When Kids Use Bad Words for Good Causes?

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data

Culturebox

The Real Secret of Serial

What reporter Sarah Koenig actually believes.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 23 2014 3:55 PM Panda Sluggers Democrats are in trouble. Time to bash China.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 23 2014 2:36 PM Take a Rare Peek Inside the Massive Data Centers That Power Google
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 23 2014 1:34 PM Leave Me Be Beneath a Tree: Trunyan Cemetery in Bali
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 4:03 PM You’re Doing It Wrong: Puttanesca Sauce
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:45 AM The United States of Reddit  How social media is redrawing our borders. 
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.