What happens to stolen GPS units?
October 5, 2008 7:30 PM   Subscribe

What is the eventual disposition of GPS navigation units that get stolen from cars in the United States? Specifically, what about GPS units that are locked with PINs? Details and more specifics inside.

A few months ago, my friend was staying at a hotel in a relatively low-crime area. Overnight, someone smashed his car's window and stole his GPS unit which had been left attached to the windshield. This got me wondering about what happens to GPS units and other similar items that get stolen in this manner.

Since this happened in a hotel parking lot in the middle of the night, I doubt that someone who was otherwise going about his or her innocent business saw the GPS sitting there and thought, "Hey! I want one of these but they're expensive, so instead of buying one I'll just steal this one right here!" Given this, I imagine that the thief had something in mind to do with the GPS units (and whatever else) he planned to steal that night. But what might this be?

There are really two classes of stolen GPS units: Those which are locked with a PIN and those which are not. Unlocked units could be sold and used readily, but what about locked units? I searched the Internet (briefly) for methods of unlocking various popular GPSes and didn't find any instructions for doing so, which makes it seem unlikely that the answer is as simple as "open the unit and momentarily short pin 9 on the xyz IC with the test pad labeled w". The GPS units I've seen have long timeouts after entering a pin incorrectly two or three times, so a brute-force approach seems unlikely to succeed.

I thought of pawn shops, but then I read about various laws and practices that are supposed to reduce the ease by which stolen property can be sold at such establishments. I wonder how effective these measures are and what percentage of goods sold through pawn shops are stolen. I also wonder whether the proprietor of a pawn shop would want to see a GPS device turned on and working (which would presumably inhibit the pawning of PIN-protected devices), or whether he would just take it as-is.

I've heard about "fences"; guys who buy stolen property, but I've never heard much about what goes on once they get their hands on these items. Presumably they have contacts to whom they sell things, but eventually they must make their way back into the hands of consumers somehow, right?

With that in mind, I started thinking about where I would go if I wanted to buy a stolen GPS or really any other stolen goods, for that matter. I realize that I am not in close touch with the culture of the criminal underground, but I have spent some time in various lower-income parts of Detroit and I can't say I've seen any open-air electronics markets or lots of people selling things out of the back of trucks. But, perhaps stolen goods are generally sold on a personal-connection basis or in some other manner that would escape the scrutiny of an outsider.

That leaves the possibility of transporting the goods to countries (or regions of the US) where less-formal open-air markets and person-to-person sales are more common. Of course, at a certain point, it might become difficult to sell a GPS unit with a USA base map to a guy in Ecuador but if much of this happens, perhaps the same criminal enterprise that moves the goods re-flashes them with local maps for the destination markets? Also, perhaps such a criminal outfit would have a way to unlock any PIN-locked units that may come into their possession(?)

At any rate, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on what generally happens to stolen items of this sort.
posted by Juffo-Wup to Society & Culture (6 answers total)
Stolen stuff is sold in plain sight all of the time. eBay, Craigslist, pawnshops, fleamarkets, whatever.

If I came across a locked GPS, I would try reflashing it with the original firmware (mapsets and software for most popular models is available on BitTorrent). Or I would call TomTom customer service and claim I forgot my password. But that's me. A crackhead who wants a quick $20 would probably just toss it.

FWIW, the only thing that locking your GPS does is inconvenience the thief after it is stolen. Most of the time when stuff is stolen from a car it's a smash-and-grab. The thief isn't going to bust out your window, rip the GPS off the dash, turn it on, see it's locked, and put it back. According to the cop my girlfriend talked to after her iPod was stolen out of her car, just putting valuables in the glovebox is an effective deterrent. Thieves won't risk breaking into a car unless they can see something worth stealing.
posted by indyz at 8:00 PM on October 5, 2008

FWIW, the only thing that locking your GPS does is inconvenience the thief after it is stolen.

Of course. It would only be if everyone/almost everyone locked theirs and methheads knew and cared about this fact that the PIN feature would be much of a deterrent. However, since my question is primarily about what happens to these units after they're stolen, it seemed worthwhile to mention PINs.
posted by Juffo-Wup at 8:32 PM on October 5, 2008

Given this, I imagine that the thief had something in mind to do with the GPS units (and whatever else) he planned to steal that night. But what might this be?

I suspect you are over thinking this and assuming too much on behalf of the thief. I think it is more like: Thief walks past car, sees something of potential value and breaks the window to take it. He doesn't care, at this stage, if he can realise any of that value. He'll only find that out if he can't shift it. If he can't he just throws it away. Therefore he's lost nothing and the 'deterrent' has only cost him time to find out if it is locked or not later.

Petty theft isn't about carefully planning disposal techniques - that is the reserve of larger, more expensive and unwieldy items (like cars for export). It's about taking things of value and finding out (once you have them) if you can make some money off your now having them rather than the original owner.
posted by Brockles at 8:43 PM on October 5, 2008

Unlocked units: a bloke at the pub sells them.
Locked units: tossed, or a bloke at the pub sells them.

indyz's last paragraph is spot-on. The thief ain't gonna check them; the only person who might is the fence (who then kicks the thief for trying to pass on unsaleable crap), or his point-man in the pub (who doesn't want a kicking from a pissed-off customer who bought an unusable GPS last week).

As an aside: I once had a mate who was in the habit of buying car stereos from "a bloke at the pub". Sometimes still with bits of dashboard attached. He must have bought at least a dozen that were pin-locked, trying to find one that wasn't, before I pointed out to him that quite often the default PIN is often something simple like the last 3 or 4 digits of the s/n, or printed on a sticker inside the cover. He then went through his purchases, found one that he could unlock, and sold the rest down at the pub...
posted by Pinback at 8:44 PM on October 5, 2008

Just to agree with indyz on unlocked ones going through ebay, craigslist, or anywhere second hand goods are sold.

Locked receivers and you'd either unlock them (Back in the day a lot of mobile phones had locks you could remove with a serial cable and some software you found on the internet); or if you couldn't easily unlock them you'd throw them away, or maybe sell them somewhere where the buyer would have no recourse.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:57 AM on October 6, 2008

The PIN isn't to prevent theft. It's to prevent unauthorized people from seeing what addresses you have saved.
Think Lila tracking down Doakes at Dexter's cabin thing using his GPS.
posted by dmd at 6:31 AM on October 6, 2008

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