To catch a smartphone thief, snap a 'theftie'

Here are the best ways to track your stolen or lost phone, including a new app that will take a covert snapshot of potential thieves.

By MSN Money Partner May 29, 2014 12:07PM

Selfie of a man in Venice © franckreporter/Getty ImagesBy Geoffrey A. Fowler, The Wall Street Journal

Consider your odds of becoming a victim of phone theft: Last year, 3.1 million Americans had their phones stolen, according to a Consumer Reports survey. That's double the number from 2012.

The Wall Street Journal on MSN MoneyCellphone carriers haven't done enough to stop this growing epidemic, fueled by high smartphone resale values and a liquid secondhand market. Until they do, it's up to you to protect your phone and aid police if it is stolen.

Starting Wednesday, the mobile security firm Lookout is adding a new tool for tracking down bad guys: the "theftie," a covert snapshot of someone trying to steal your phone.

It's part of an app that alerts you to suspicious behaviors on your phone, like a screen password mistyped three times. You get an email containing your phone's location and a highly unflattering look at the person holding your phone -- be they Samaritan or supervillain. Theft alerts cost $30 a year, bundled with Lookout's other services that block unsafe websites.

Lookout is part of a growing antitheft industry that makes use of the fact that the phone is already a powerful self-contained tracking device. To test the best options, free and paid, I challenged colleagues to grab and attempt to reset my phone. These services all protected my phone's data and provided useful clues in my hunt, though sometimes the trail went cold.

That's not to say we should become stolen-phone vigilantes -- in fact, that's a terrible idea. "There are too many risks, aside from the location being wrong," says Nuria Vanegas, a public information officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. "You could knock on a door and it could be a grandma or it could be a gangster."

Law-enforcement officials around the country tell me these services have limitations, but they'll take any help they can get. "We use it all the time and make arrests," says Sgt. Danielle Newman, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Police Department.

Most recent smartphones come with access to free software that can report their location, remotely lock themselves and erase all their content. You can use these programs, like Apple's (AAPL) free Find My iPhone, to track a phone thief in real time as he moves across town.

But you have to turn it on before your phone gets stolen. Apple asks for permission to activate Find My iPhone when you set up an iPhone. You can also turn it on later in the phone's iCloud settings.

In my tests, when a colleague pilfered my iPhone, I logged in to on a computer to find the phone's location, then set it to "lost mode," which locked the phone and displayed instructions on how to return it to me. Doing this also turned on an activation lock that would've made it hard for a crook to reset and resell the phone.

iCloud also gives you the option to remotely erase your phone or play an alarm on it, if you think it's near. (Annoyingly, the iCloud website doesn't open on Android phones. Does Apple think all our friends have iPhones?)

Apple's service usually allowed me to find my phone within a city block radius -- but it became less useful when my colleague-thief took out the SIM card and turned off Wi-Fi. In those cases, or if the phone is turned off, Apple can only tell you when and where the phone last checked in (within 24 hours) and email you next time the phone is online.

Android phones offer similar services for free, but setting them up varies by maker. Recent Samsung (SSNLF) phones can use the website, which worked well in my tests. Others can download Google's (GOOG) Android Device Manager to find, alarm and remotely erase Android phones -- but I had more difficulty getting it to find my phone.

Another premium service, called Absolute LoJack (LOJN), comes embedded in the latest Samsung Galaxy phones and promises to track stolen phones, even if they're shipped overseas. The software, buried deep inside the phone, can reinstall itself and send data back to the company's servers. The $30-per-year service also comes with Absolute's own investigators, who read your phone's digital crumbs and coordinate recovery with police.

Lookout's app provides most of the same phone-finding services as the free apps, adding an extra set of virtual eyes over your phone. Right before your phone's battery runs out, Lookout will send you an email with its location. (Lookout calls that a signal flare.)

Lookout isn't the first app to take photos of thieves, but the company integrated it into a wider set of alerts. You get a theftie when Lookout spots any of the common steps criminals take when they steal a phone.

In my tests, I caught snaps of a colleague who snatched my phone and was able to track him to a block in downtown San Francisco. But it wasn't perfect: The location information wouldn't have been good enough for me to isolate him if he'd been a stranger. And Lookout's "scream" feature, which turns the phone into a police siren, wasn't loud enough for me to hear half a block away. (The company says scream was designed more to help people find phones lost in couches than to spook thieves.)

Lookout does more on Android phones, including firing off a theftie after an incorrect passcode. Its protections are more limited on an iPhone. Lookout can never take thefties, as Apple's privacy protections restrict remote access to the camera.

The restrictions raise a good question: Does Lookout violate privacy by taking covert photos? Lookout says it limits photography to suspicious situations, and I agree that somebody trespassing on my device can't expect privacy.

Another key question: Why shouldn't the industry provide better smartphone security? Lawmakers, cellphone makers and carriers are squabbling over the idea of a universal kill switch to turn stolen phones into bricks. Carriers, which profit from selling insurance policies and replacement phones, claim hackers could wreak havoc by exploiting a switch -- a weak excuse for an industry with deep security expertise.

If you have an iPhone, just turn on Find My iPhone. If you have an Android phone and are worried about theft, $30 a year for Lookout's services would be well spent. A theftie alert was the first sign I had in some of my tests that my phone had been snatched.

Moreover, Lookout's real-time reports can help you make important decisions, like whether to wipe its data or call it while it is in someone's hands.

Then there's the real-life test: Earlier this month, a beta user of the Lookout software in Dyersburg, Tenn., had her phone stolen while shopping at Wal-Mart (WMT), according to local police. When the suspected thieves mistyped her passcode, Lookout snapped thefties and sent them to her. She gave the photos to the police and posted them on Facebook (FB).

A few days later, a friend of the victim identified the suspects by name. Police say after that the suspects turned themselves in and returned the phone.

"Pictures don't lie," says Captain Mark Moody, a spokesman for Dyersburg police. Now that's digital justice.

Nathan Olivarez-Giles contributed to this article.

More from The Wall Street Journal

Jun 1, 2014 7:45AM

Anyone who steals a cell phone is in my personal opinion an idiot.  Any device or object that is equipped with GPS tracking capability from the git-go is going to be very difficult to use or sell to anyone else.  It is a bit like tinkering with an unknown explosive device because you never know what will set it off or when it will blow up in your face.  As for buying one from some stranger on the street that is even less intelligent because you can pretty much assume it is stolen and if you get caught trying to use it you are just as guilty as the thief in the eyes of the law. 

The photo aspect certainly helps in the conviction of a suspected thief but the GPS part is what helps authorities to physically locate it any time that it is powered on or any time someone attempts to use it.  I worked for Motorola and know a little bit about how cell sites work and the minute that phone starts transmitting anyone who is properly equipped and trained can tell exactly where you are within a few city blocks through simple triangulation.

Unfortunately the police and fire officials have not been quite trained or so equipped to take full advantage of this feature.  I have only heard of a few cases where cell signals were used to trace and locate stranded individuals but it is indeed possible and that makes stealing one an almost certain ticket to the local lock up.  Eventually it will become the norm I think.   

Some of the more advanced and high end units are even more specific than that and use former military technology that can pin point you within a few feet.  This is the same technology that is said to have allowed a cruise missile to fly through the bedroom window of Moammar Gadhafi of Libya in 1986 although I suspect that was more likely an early rendition of a JADAM.  In any case stealing a cell phone is just plain stupid. 

Jun 1, 2014 2:01PM
Every cell phone in the world has a serial number.  Just make it illegal to provide service to a stolen phone.  Build a website maintained by the police to list stolen phone serial numbers.  Provide service to a stolen phone, loose your business licence, pay a fine.  The Chinese would have to be involved but it would stop stolen phone sales in America.
Jun 1, 2014 8:35AM
Some people steal for fun and don't care about you, your grief or even if they get caught with it. They already have a story if caught for the police or anyone else. Many of them have their own phones and make a few calls with yours and toss it or sell it for junk at a few $'s. Even the police don't care about your phone, Sorry!!
Jun 1, 2014 6:06PM
As a school bus monitor for a public school system in Iowa, I have a 12 year old boy on my route who gets to go to reform school next year. Military type school where he gets to live. He has stolen at least 5 cell phones. He steals them, plays games on them, and then gets bored and gives or throws them away. An adult who steals one in my book is just plain STUPID! And the person who buys one is even DUMBER! 
Jun 1, 2014 6:02PM
Jus a way to sell a new "app.'   Then, tomorrow, there will be another "new" app for something.  Just trying to get your money.  As stupid as a headline like "more in US oppose Snowden" that says basically nothing.  If two opposed Snowden yesterday and now three oppose Snowden, then MORE oppose Snowden.  Well there is one more who SUPPORTS Snowden!  That thar is me.  I detest the pilfering, plundering, theiving, lying, deadbeat idgits in control of this rathole.  But, what I understand less is the more than 300 million who stand idly by without saying a word and let them wrap us in straight jackets.  We can't get a medical record for ourself without reveaing our BD and SSN.  We have to fill out "privacy" forms relentlessly but the sorry ashed government knows what size drawers we wear.  Please, somebogy get Obummer's smelly ash off the golf course and help him read this.
Jun 1, 2014 6:40PM
Feeding and clothing your children are more important than a cost of a cell phone. Carry On!
Jun 1, 2014 9:59AM
Problem with "theftie" photos is that all those boogaloos look alike.
Jun 1, 2014 6:01AM
And this picture could be of someone who found the found.
Jun 10, 2014 5:33PM
You know they can't charge people caught in a stolen car with car theft; all they can charge them with is possession of stolen property.  Same with your phone.  Some dude gave it to me.  I bought it on Craigs list.  Don't put your phone down in public for one thing. 
Jun 1, 2014 5:33PM
This here ain't wuff wastin time talkin bout. selfie, theftie, girlie, dickie...just some idgit wantin to start a new wurd.
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