Imagine you’re on vacation enjoying a day at Disneyland with your family.Â You get your iPhone out of your pocket and it’s in your hand.Â You set it down on the seat next to you for a second to help your 4 year old, then a few seconds later you suddenly realize that it’s gone.Â You think “Wait a minute… where’s my iphone?”Â Then you question yourself “where did I set it down and why would I set it down?” and then you re-step your path, ask around if anyone saw it, check all your pockets like 10 times, look in the stroller and all around.Â It’s gone!Â Now what?
What would you do?Â “I have mobile me” you say?Â Well, so do I – but there are some harsh realities to that.Â If you’re an iPhone owner I suggest that you read on, find out what is and isn’t possible, and think about what you would do, because it could happen to you.
[Author’s Note – Please forgive my seemingly random use of Blade Runner quotes. Â I put them in to lighten up a rather long article and hoped that readers would just get it. Â I’ve decided to point them out because I realized that without being in the know, they come across as me being overly dramatic. Â So watch for them, and enjoy…]
Reaction time is a factor in this so please pay attention…
My first instinct was to assume that it was stolen.Â Why?Â Because it happened so fast.Â I didn’t just misplace it.Â I literally had it in my hand one minute and then about 30 seconds later realized it was gone.Â In comparison, several times during our visit to the happiest place on earth one of us saw another guest drop something and we immediately picked it up and said “Sir, you forgot your bikini calendar.”Â Ok, that particular thing only happened once, but my point is this is what normal honest people do.Â Had some honest person witnessed me turn my back on my $700 pocket computer, they would have alerted me to the dreaded mistake.Â Instead someone saw an opportunity and lifted it.Â And it only took a few seconds.
But a part of me still didn’t want to believe it, and the people enjoying the day with me encouraged me to hope for the best.Â Maybe it’s here in the stroller somewhere.Â Maybe it was picked up and taken to lost and found.Â We looked over and over the same places.Â We texted it a message “Please call xxx-xxx-xxxx and return for a reward.”Â We called the phone several times.Â But within about 30 minutes calls went straight to voicemail.Â The phone was turned off.
#1. Acceptance. Is it lost or is it stolen?Â This probably effects how you should react.Â If it’s truly just lost and an honest person finds it, calling it and texting it about a reward would probably work.Â But if it’s stolen, that tactic will likely just alert the thief that you’re looking for it and cause them to turn the phone off.Â And while it’s turned off you can’t track it.
What if I go north?Â Disappear?Â Would you come after me?Â Hunt me?
You’ve probably read of success stories where people used Mobile Me to track and recover a stolen computer or iPhone.Â Well, Mobile Me failed me.Â In case you’re not in the know, Mobile Me (or dot mac) is a paid subscription service ($99/yr) from Apple that, among other things, comes with the back to my mac and the find my iPhone services.Â The idea behind find my iphone is that it will track a lost phone.Â You log in with a computer and can see on a map where your phone currently is.Â You can also remote lock it, send it a message with a sound, or you can remote wipe it.Â From experimenting with it and from reading those success stories, it seems like it would be THE way to get your iPhone back.Â But there are some significant limitations.
#2. No app for that. I was traveling with several other people who also have iPhones, so I immediately borrowed one and tried to log in to me.com using Mobile Safari.Â Remember how the iPhone has the REAL internet in your pocket?Â Well that’s not exactly true.Â You can not access the REAL Mobile Me service from Mobile Safari.Â You can only access it via your mail, contacts, calendar and photo applications.
It was the most frustrating thing in the world to know that someone was getting away with my iPhone, and it’s trackable, but I can’t track it because there’s no app for that.Â Here’s a quick petition to Apple: If someone is out and about and their phone goes missing they’re not going to have a laptop and an internet connection with them.Â But they might have another iPhone around because people with iPhones are friends with other people with iPhones.Â So there needs to be an easy way to track the phone from another phone.Â Had I been able to react faster, promptly track it before it was turned off, I could have possibly gotten the local disneyland/anaheim police to help me right away.
Of course I thought of calling a friend who might be at home or near a real computer to have them track the phone.Â But guess what?Â All my contacts are in my phone.Â How many phone numbers do you have memorized?Â It was about 2 hours before I finally reached someone who could log in and try to track the phone.Â But by then it was turned off.
#3. Find my iPhone only gives the current location and only if it’s turned on. Ok, now this is probably obvious but a turned off phone can’t be tracked while it’s turned off.Â So, when my friend logged in to Mobile Me there was no location available.Â But it had been turned on all day – why not show where it was right before they turned it off?Â Well, here’s the part that you might not think of: it does not constantly poll every iPhone on the planet for it’s location, waiting for people to log in and request it.Â It only shows the last known location and only AFTER you log in and ask for it.Â In other words, if your phone is stolen and immediately turned off, when you log in to Find my iPhone it won’t have any data collected because it only collects data (or starts to collect data) when you’re logged into the Find my iPhone screen.
And even after you’ve ‘activated’ the feature, it doesn’t store any historical data.Â So you can’t see the path that the phone traveled or see where it was an hour ago, or even see how long it was turned on or off.Â It only shows where it was the last time it knew where it was, and if it’s currently on or off.Â So if your phone is stolen take lots of screenshots of the Mobile Me page.Â It’s the only ‘proof’ you’ll have of where it was.
Eventually my iPhone popped up for a minute – clear across the park near the Small World ride.Â Once you know it’s traveling and you know that it’s in the hands of a thief, what do you do now?
#4. Choose one: Protect the data or try to recover the iPhone. Cold hard reality: Apple’s not really providing a CSI-style ‘track my stolen iPhone’ feature.Â They are providing a find my lost iPhone feature.Â And as much as they might be ‘selling’ it as a theft recovery feature, it’s missing some key options to really make it such.Â I’ll get to those suggestions later.Â In the mean time, Mobile Me does some decent tools to help protect your data in the case of a theft, and a few tricks up Apple’s sleeves.Â See the overall options in the image below…
Yes you can Remote Wipe it, but that will permanently delete all media and data on your iPhone, restoring it to factory settings.Â Once you do that it can no longer be tracked, locked, or display messages.Â In other words, this option basically gives the thief a shiny new clean iPhone, ready to be activated. Â Just like they bought it on ebay. Â This choice is a complete acceptance that your iPhone is gone and you’ll never get it back.Â And realize that the longer you wait to remote wipe it, the less likely it will remain on option.Â I did not make this choice.
We’re so happy you found us.
There is some good news.Â As popular as the iPhone is, most people really don’t know that much about it. Â A common thief who would steal an iPhone probably doesn’t really know what all it can do – or they wouldn’t steal it.Â Because who knowingly steals a tracking device?Â And this means that they will eventually turn it back on – and if you’re on it, you can see where they are, capture it as a screenshot, and deal with it.Â So let’s get to some of the positive realities, because Apple does have some nice features in Mobile Me that make it worth the $99 a year.
#5. Remote Lock is a good thing, do it as soon as you can. Even if the phone is turned off, remote lock it and the moment it’s turned on it will be locked with a 4 digit code.Â This probably isn’t as hacker proof as a remote wipe, but it’s good enough for the average dumb theif.Â After 6 incorrect codes the phone forces a 1 minute time out before they can try again.Â Enter an incorrect code again and it forces a 5 minute time out during which the phone is completely unusable.Â The next incorrect code is a 15 minute time out and so on.Â This should do a good job of preventing a brute force trial and error hack of the code.
Another good feature is that barring any jailbreaking tools iTunes will not let you into a phone that is locked. Â You have to enter the unlock passcode before you can do anything with it in iTunes. Â So your data should be fairly secure, unless of course the thief is savvy enough to get around the lock. Â I suspect there is a way to completely reset the phone to factory conditions, but doing that would hopefully also result in wiping your data. Not to mention that they’d have to turn it on to do this – and then they’d probably be giving up their location.
#6. You can also send messages to the phone along with a sound – albeit a fairly soothing sound.Â I guess I was expecting the iPhones buzzing ‘Alarm’ sound but instead it sounds the submarine ring.Â If the phone is in a time out phase, the message will stay up until the phone is unlocked, but the sound can be easily stopped.
Of course the phone has to be turned on for the message to be delivered.Â But sending a message does a very cool thing: it queue’s the message and will deliver it as soon as the phone is turned on.Â And it will send you an email telling you what time the message was delivered.Â This is the way that all of these features work, including remote lock and remote wipe. Â They all report back via email when the action has been completed. Â So by sending a message to a turned off phone, you will have an e-paper trail of when the phone was turned back on.Â And if you’re keeping an eye on your email, this will also alert you to log in and check the location of the phone.
#7. Removing the SIM card does not necessarily disable the Mobile Me features. This is somewhat good news but also a mixed bag. Â The phone CAN report back to Mobile Me using Edge, 3G or WiFi.Â So if the SIM card is pulled it can still display messages and report back it’s location, as long as it’s connected to the internet via WiFi. Â However, unfortunately the iPhone probably won’t automatically connect to the thief’s home wifi network.Â Still, it is a cool edge over the thief because it makes it very risky for them to EVER turn the phone on.
Milk and cookies kept you awake, eh Sebastian?
Resuming my story, later that day my phone was turned on in the Disney parking lot and after that I didn’t expect it would ever pop up again.Â I had locked the phone and sent messages to it claiming that I could track it.Â So I never expected the thief to be stupid enough to turn on the phone at his house… but the next afternoon it was turned on in a residential neighborhood in La Verne.Â And Mobile Me located it twice in approximately the same location about 20 minutes apart.Â So now what to do?
Nothing is worse than having an itch you can never scratch.
When I found the location of the phone I was only about 20 minutes away from it.Â But I’m not quite brave enough to go knocking on the doors of thieves.Â So I called the police.Â At first they were uninterested, stating that 100’s of items are stolen from the park every day.Â But when I told them that I had tracked it to a house, they asked me to fill out an online police report and gave me the number of a detective to call.
#8. I’ll probably never get it back. It’s back to the harsh realities and this is the main one we just have to accept.Â I’ve given the detective all the data I collected.Â He’s being quite responsive, called me several times with follow up questions and seems interested in the case.Â Because of the $700 cost of the iPhone it is considered grand theft and could carry a serious penalty.Â However, as you can see the tracking data returned a fairly large circle which probably encompasses 10 houses.Â The detective isn’t going to go door to door searching for the phone.Â He might hit the main two houses at the corner of Peyton Rd and 9th steet.Â But who’s to say if the culprit even still has the phone.Â After getting messages like “we tracked this phone to your house and are calling the police” they might have freaked out and tossed it in a dumpster.
UPDATE – Under the heading “You know the score pal. Â If you’re not cop, you’re little people.” Â I did hear back from the detective who said that they actually went to city of La Verne looking for my iPhone. Â They contacted the residents in the grid of the tracking area but they were not able to locate the phone. Â No one admitted to being at Disneyland on the day of the theft. Â He suggested that I contact AT&T and report it stolen – which I had already done. Â He also entered the serial number into a national database of stolen property. Â I greatly appreciate his efforts. Â He took it seriously and did more than I expected him to do. Â But it does go to show that these Mobile Me features are not enough to actually recover a stolen phone.
Did you get your precious photos?
Let me take this moment to stress just how shitty is it to steal a phone or a camera at an amusement park.Â I was from out of state, on vacation with my wife and daughter, taking memorable photos and videos of my family with that phone.Â Those are now lost forever.Â The video of my daughter talking about her first roller coaster ride – gone. Â (Insert your favorite Blade Runner quote here) Â Then there’s the fact that I needed that phone to communicate with my family while on vacation.Â All my numbers are in it.Â How many phone numbers do you have memorized these days?Â People couldn’t reach me, and my wife and I couldn’t easily separate at the park. Â And finally, how much vacation time and energy got wasted trying to figure out what happened and take care of it? Â Not to mention the $700 loss. Â It cast a dark cloud on the rest of the trip.Â So in the words of Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China, ‘son of a bitch must pay.’Â But that’s not the movie I’ve been quoting – and the son of a bitch probably won’t pay.
Ooh, that’s no way to treat a friend.
Oh yeah, I still have 2 remaining harsh realities to get to…
#9. AT&T is no help. If you call AT&T and report your iPhone as stolen, they’ll disable your SIM card and your Mobile Me features will be disabled as well. Â This is similar to the #4 Choose one above. Â Because reporting it stolen might actually prevent you from remote locking it and all that. Â The harsh reality here is that AT&T is not concerned with recovering your lost or stolen device.Â They only care to prevent an unauthorized user from making or taking calls on your phone, and racking up a big phone bill. Â Stick with the Mobile Me features because Remote lock takes care of preventing outbound calls, (but allows inbound calls), but still gives you time to try to track it.
Eventually you will need AT&T to activate another other phone anyway, which will deactivate the SIM card in your missing phone.Â I waited as long as I could stand it to do this, and by the time I did Mobile Me had shown Location Not Available for over a day. Â And without a charge, my battery would be long dead by now anyway.
I spoke with an AT&T rep and asked if there was any way to put the iPhone’s IMEI on a ‘stolen’ list to prevent it from being re-activated by another person.Â She basically told me that this can not be done and that my iPhone can be re-activated by anyone using a new SIM card.Â She had a few other iPhone facts wrong, so I’d love to hear an official word from AT&T on this.
#10. Replacement cost is a full $699. I pre-ordered my 3GS from Apple and got it the day it was released.Â That means that I’m not eligible for a new subsidized phone until Feb 2011. Â But there is a trick to getting a new $299 iPhone today.Â Since I’m already on a family plan, I can add a new line for $10 a month.Â That new line is eligible for a subsidized phone if you sign a 2 year contract.Â If you do all of this at an AT&T store they can make a switch-a-roo and activate your new iPhone on your current number and give you a cheap phone (or no phone) on the new number.Â You’ll have to pay the $10 a month for 24 months, which is $240.Â But $240 + $299 is only $539 – which is $160 less, and you get to pay it off slowly. Â Still, I’m going to try to hold out as long as I can and wait to see what’s announced next year. Â (we’ll see how long I last).
Can the maker repair what he makes
Even though (so far) Mobile Me has not helped me get my phone back, I do have some improvement suggestions that could aid theft recovery. Â The detective who is working on my case kept asking for the most current tracking information, and a narrower circle. Â If I could track it to an individual house, and show that it is currently there, he’d probably go knock on their door. Â But realize that it took 3 or 4 days to even be able to discuss it with a detective. Â And by the time I did I had already re-activated a new phone on my old number.
- The main suggestion is to have a way of tracking your iPhone from another iPhone.Â That is a critical requirement to being able to react quickly.Â It should be a core part of the maps app to see all of your other iPhones registered in Mobile Me.
- Mobile Me should assume that if you remote lock your phone, it’s maybe been stolen.Â Either that or there should be a separate option to put the iPhone in an ‘I’ve been stolen’ state.Â In this mode it could stealthy update it’s location every 15 minutes and Mobile Me could store the last 100 positions (a day’s worth of movement).Â In fact, if triggered it could go into a low power mode where the phone pretends to be turned off, ignores the on/off button, keeps the screen black (except for the delivery of messages), and continuously reports it’s location to the system.
- Also when in a ‘theft recovery’ mode it should find a connection by any means possible. Â I keep ‘ask to join networks’ turned off. Â But once triggered, if that SIM card is removed it could look for any open wifi connections and send back it’s location
- Easy one – Instead of only sending you back an email saying “your phone is now locked,” it should send all kinds of data, including the remaining battery power, information about failed pass code attempts, time turned on or off, and most importantly it’s location information. Â It’s crazy that currently you have to take screenshots to keep the location history. Â But a data rich email would be very solid evidence.
- And it seems like Apple or AT&T could do IMEI tracking on stolen devices.Â If the policy (or law) is that stolen devices can’t be reactivated, or that the original owner has the right to track and location their phone even after it’s been reactivated on a new phone number, I think it would seriously cut down on phone theft.
Let me tell you about my mother…
Well, this has been good therapy. Â While I’d love to see the perp caught and the phone returned, in a larger world view it’s not that important. Â At some point you have to (#1) accept and let it go. Â I try to live my life not allowing my stuff to own me. Â Those who don’t know me well might not believe it about me, because I do own a fair amount of stuff. Â But it’s true that my philosophy is that I own things, things don’t own me. Â It’s an important distinction. Â Still, I’m supper bummed to have had it snatched away, and I’m not anxious to spend the larger part of a grand to replace it. Â It was an avoidable mistake on my part and therefore regrettable. Â And I was being very careful on this trip to keep an eye on our stuff. Â But in the end I’m just glad that my DSLR wasn’t taken, or that someone wasn’t hurt.
One friend says that any problem that can be solved with money isn’t really a problem. Â Someone with a poverty mentality might take that to mean that money isn’t a problem (to get). Or that only someone who has money would believe that because money comes easy. Â But to me it means that problems that can be solved with money are petty and not important. Â The important parts of life are people, relationships, health, and faith. Â I can buy a new iPhone… or … -gasp- go without.