Tracking Down a Stolen Cell Phone
March 8, 2010 3:27 PM   Subscribe

My cell phone was stolen. Sprint Family Locator has tracked it to a specific address. What should I do?

I left my phone (a Blackberry Curve) in the back of a cab this morning. I called the cab company (I remembered the cab ID number) and they contacted the driver. The driver said that he had the phone and would bring it to me at my place of work. Thirty minutes later, he had not arrived, and I again called the cab company, who again contacted the driver. Apparently, he came, picked up another passenger, and left. He had misunderstood due to being foreign, and did not have a cell phone after all.

Okay, so I signed up for Sprint Family Locator, which has located my phone at a house on a map. The phone is still on and as far as I can tell has not been used. I called the San Francisco PD's non-emergency line and was told that going to this address myself would be stupid, but I could go to the station and make a report and then the police might do something, maybe. I won't be able to get to the station for several hours.

The phone is still on - I've called it and it rang and went to voicemail.

So, my options are:
1. Call Sprint and cancel the phone and wait 2-3 days for a replacement.
2. Go to the police in several hours with a screenshot of the Sprint Family Locator map and make a report, after which they may or may not do something, and I may or may not get my phone back.
3. Go to the address myself, which I agree is a terrible idea (I am a small and meek female).

I'm leaning towards option #1 but wanted to check with Ask Metafilter before I do anything rash.
posted by granted to Law & Government (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Call police and ask to have an officer escort you there, when you two meet up, explain to him that you expect him to do the interrogating and you would like to sit in your/his car.
posted by 2legit2quit at 3:45 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's nothing wrong with option 2, right? You may as well make sure your phone is unrecoverable before waiting for a replacement. In fact, you could probably call Sprint and let them know this happened, but tell them to hold off a day or two to see if you can get your phone back.

In any case, you don't necessarily have to go to your local station in San Francisco. I don't know how well it will work, but here is the Police Department directory – just scroll down to "District Station Captains," find your district station listed, and dial the number there. They might be able to let you know what their recourses will be.
posted by koeselitz at 3:46 PM on March 8, 2010

Do you know any police officers who might meet you there or help you? If not, with the proof in #2, that should be enough for them to search the house w/warrant. Will cops do this for a missing phone? Are there sensitive email on the phone which might give greater reason for the police to want to help you get your phone back?
posted by yoyoceramic at 3:50 PM on March 8, 2010

Just to save you some time it might be worth while just driving by the address and making sure its a single family home. (or maybe take a peak on google street maps?)

You're going to have a much more difficult time with an officer if its an apartment building.
posted by bitdamaged at 4:01 PM on March 8, 2010

A warrant for a cell phone? For all you know some non-techie found the phone and doesn't know how to find the owner. Keep calling it and presume the best. They'll probably eventually answer if the ringer is on. You should also keep an eye on the call record to make sure they're not making calls. If you know where the phone is you can also find their phone number. A call asking nicely if they found a phone will scare the crap out of them if they stole it.
posted by monkeymadness at 4:08 PM on March 8, 2010

Response by poster: So, I was able to reverse-lookup the address, and now have some names but no phone number. I may have found one of the residents on twitter, but she hasn't posted in months. (Other social networking sites are blocked on my work computer.)

According to google maps, it's a single family home not far from me. The phone is still on, and no calls have been made, which supports monkeymadness's theory. A friend offered to accompany me to the house, but I'd still prefer to make initial contact some other way.
posted by granted at 4:16 PM on March 8, 2010

A quick note to think about: you left your phone in a cab, it wasn't stolen from you. I assume there is no information on your phone that would let a completely honest person return the phone to you.

So, do what you're planning to do with the police, but remember that your goal is to recover the phone safely, not see someone arrested or punished. Up until this point no crime has been committed, other than picking up a phone off the back seat of a cab, and the purpose of the escort from the police department is to ensure no crime (assault) is committed on your person by someone who doesn't want to give the phone back.
posted by davejay at 4:18 PM on March 8, 2010

Oh, and one more thing: you might consider texting the person (from another phone) a note (to your phone) that you've traced the phone to address [whatever], and you're happy to know your phone is still alive and kicking, and would they be so kind as to call you back to meet you, return the phone and get a small monetary reward?

of course they might hide the phone and deny the whole thing, so your odds might be better to do that while you're actually standing out front with the police escort.
posted by davejay at 4:21 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Has the icon on the sprint family locater page moved at all? Because I used the same service when I lost a phone. Unfortunately, the GPS did not have a good signal, and the location reported by the service was off by a couple 100 meters. It also moved sporadically on occasion. In the end, we recovered the phone because it was lost in a public place and someone found it.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 4:23 PM on March 8, 2010

Call your phone?
posted by carlh at 4:23 PM on March 8, 2010

Response by poster: davejay, I completely agree with you, which is another reason that I'm reluctant to involve the police.

ShootTheMoon: on a couple of refreshes, the icon moved to an area about half a mile away and said "Accurate within 250 yards." The vast majority of the time, though, it's centered on this one house and labeled as accurate within 10-15 yards.
posted by granted at 4:26 PM on March 8, 2010


I really think you should call the police now. I'm not saying that's the right thing in all times and all places, but you shouldn't go by there alone or even with a friend. This is the job of the police: to act as an intermediary in these situations. You might be worried, given some comments here, that the police will just put you off, or that they'll need a warrant to do anything at all; but I really don't think that's the case. The police are usually just as rational as anybody else in a case like this; going by the house might indeed be a great idea, but again, it's not something you should be doing.

Pretty much the definition of a police officer is "a person who is paid to do things like this." Let her or him go by the house; don't do it yourself. Seriously. Ring your local department and let them know what's up; they'll set something up with you, and I imagine they'll go by and check it out.

Stay safe, though. You never know what'll be there when you show up. May as well pass it on to the cops and let them handle this part of it.
posted by koeselitz at 4:29 PM on March 8, 2010

this is how I find out about my twin's life when she doesn't call me
of course you're going to presume this is an honest person, which is why I like koeselitz's wording: the police can act as an intermediary in this situation, without necessarily charging anyone with anything. I like the idea of calling the non-emergency line again and explaining the information you have. If they brush you off, on to plan B, but it won't hurt to call.
and then please call me and tell me what happens
posted by changeling at 4:43 PM on March 8, 2010

And if you're worried about what the police might do, fair enough. Good to go in with your eyes open. But remember that it's up to you whether you want to press charges or not - without your say-so, whoever has your phone isn't likely to be charged with anything.
posted by koeselitz at 4:48 PM on March 8, 2010

Call the police. Do not take no for an answer. Continue to call and ask for a supervisor if you have to. If you must go down to the station house, do it.

Do not be concerned that the phone was or was not stolen. If the person refuses to hand it over, you bet it is stolen. The police will help, especially if you continue to call and respectfully ask for help. I like the suggestion of calling one of the police captains.

Don't text the phone. The whole family locator probably works on the sim card, no? So if they know you are tracking them, they are going to take the SIM card out of the phone. The phone has value the SIM card isn't valuable.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:00 PM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

"A friend offered to accompany me to the house..."

Bad idea. Once you decide you want to go to a stranger's place and try to retrieve your phone bring a police officer not a friend. Remember you're a stranger to these people and you will be on their property. You don't know who they are and how they will react. It may turn into some sort of confrontation. They may decide to accuse you of something you didn't do. Going alone would be bad enough. Bringing a friend is equivalent to "bringing muscle" and may raise the likelyhood of eliciting some sort of hostile response even if completely unintended. People feel threatened by strangers coming to their home easily. Bringing a friend merely introduces one more uncontrollable variable and doesn't add any form of official authority or legitimacy. It makes it look like you're expecting trouble.

Call a few more times to see if they're going to pick up and answer. If they don't you may begin to assume that they intend to keep the phone. Then follow all the advice above, get a police officer to accompany you.
That way you won't get into any sort of undocumented messy situation where you'll end up in front of Judge Judy for bogus assault or trespassing charges.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 6:31 PM on March 8, 2010


I tried that when I lost my phone once, and it gave me an address, too. I was all set to go over there and dispense justice. I even went so far as to get in the car, and then heard ringing coming from the seat. My phone was NOT in those people's house. It was in my car!

Sprint Family locator is inaccurate within a certain range. Your phone may be anywhere within a square mile of where it says it is.

Deactivate the phone. You do not know and cannot know that it is there.
posted by winna at 7:06 PM on March 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

From here (Sprint Location Services PDF).

Q: Does this device actually use GPS satellites to calculate its locations?
A: It depends. If you are indoors, then the answer is no – instead, AFLT is used. AFLT uses base station triangulation to calculate your location. If you are outside, then it will use MS-Based GPS and actual satellites are used to determine your location.

Q: What is AFLT?
A: Advanced Forward Link Trilateration. AFLT is a type of device-based position location technology. Unlike A-GPS, AFLT does not use GPS satellites to determine location. To determine location, the phone takes measurements of signals from nearby cellular base stations (towers) and reports the time/distance readings back to the network, which are then used to triangulate an approximate location of the handset. In general, at least three surrounding base stations are required to get an optimal position fix.

Google suggests that the AFLT accuracy wildly fluctuates depending on your local base station numbers and positions. The first few results include people stating a range of 1-2 miles at times. I'm really not sure I'd do anything involving the police. I'd just cancel the thing and get a replacement.
posted by empyrean at 9:34 PM on March 8, 2010

A) Yeah, Sprint Family Location services are effectively useless in my experience, and you should reconsider paying for it until such a time and place as more accurate software is available. I use GoogleMaps on my blackberry and the GPS function on the phone effectively makes GoogleMaps a GPS mapping software for me when I'm driving, but there are still times when I'm in Nairobi and my phone "thinks" it is in St. Petersburg.

B) You still have the info from the cab company, and they know the driver, who has confirmed he has the phone, right? I'd say there's a pretty strong chance you can get your phone back, and this will probably be easiest if you 1) ask the phone company when the driver starts his next shift, and 2) if they can send him on his first call to [your address of choice] and you will pay his expenses to deliver it. Tell them to tell the driver there's a big tip for him, if getting your phone back is that important to you.
posted by allkindsoftime at 1:28 AM on March 9, 2010

Hold the (proverbial) phone- your phone was not stolen. You lost it. It's not the job of the police to escort people to where they think their lost stuff might be, let alone get it back for them. Get a grip, people. This problem is no one's fault but the OP's.

Stop treating this cabbie like a criminal. Call Sprint and have them brick the phone. Get a new one. Take better care of it.
posted by mkultra at 5:41 AM on March 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure why trying to go through the cab company again isn't an option? Show up in person, sounds like something was lost over the phone.

Or, a rather passive aggressive way to deal with this:

Make a "Lost Phone" poster, and post it near the house. Assume they're honest people, give them an opportunity to do the right thing, which communication/language barriers may have interfered with.
posted by fontophilic at 9:52 AM on March 9, 2010

Response by poster: I ended up filing a police report online. No new news otherwise.

I accept total responsibility for the missing phone, and you're right, mkultra, calling it stolen was a bit glennbeckian of me. When I filed the report, I chose the option for lost and/or possibly stolen items. Actually, the phone still hasn't been used (according to the Sprint site), which makes me even more hesitant to cancel it. That may be dumb.

Thanks for letting me know about the uselessness of Sprint Family Locator. I signed up for a 15-day free trial and will be cancelling that shit (I was going to cancel it anyway, but now I will do so WITH PREJUDICE).

Just to clarify, I'm not assuming that the cabbie is a criminal. When the cab company contacted him, he initially said he did have the phone, and what allkindsoftime suggested was the original plan - he was supposed to turn his meter on, drive over here, and drop the phone off. But apparently he misunderstood the situation due to the language barrier and thought he was supposed to be picking up a passenger here, and didn't have the phone after all. It was a little sketchy but I accept the explanation.
posted by granted at 9:59 AM on March 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

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