Boston Police Use ‘Find My iPhone’ to Crack a Case

The BPD solved a case that's part of an increasingly common trend in the wake of thefts.

On their blog this week, the Boston Police Department offered an example of the kind of case that’s becoming increasingly common around the country these days.

Monday morning, police investigated a home break-in. One resident’s iPhone had been stolen, so he used the “Find My iPhone” to track its GPS location. The app led police to the nearby Massachusetts Avenue MBTA platform where they asked the victim to turn on the “Find my iPhone” system, which makes the phone emit a loud pinging noise. Walking up and down the T platform, police heard the ping coming from a man’s backpack. They were able to recover the phone along with other goods taken from the house and make an arrest.

GPS tracking technology that allows us to remotely locate our devices is proliferating at the same time that cell phone thefts are on the rise. This puts us in a unique era where we can sometimes glean really specific information about thieves. “As the technology becomes cheaper, we may be entering the era of ‘LoJack for everything,’ when nearly any object of value, if stolen, will be able to help police track it down,” the Globe’s Scott Kirsner wrote in 2011 in a prediction that seems prescient.

Stories like this one have led to some nearly cinematic moments of justice, many of which have gone viral through the years. Before his computer was taken from his dorm, a Bentley University student had installed an automatic data backup service. It allowed him to monitor any new files being saved to his computer by its new owner. Using this, the student was able to get an e-mail address and Facebook profile for the thief and provide it to police. He was also able to upload an embarrassing video of the thief dancing in his kitchen to the song “Make It Rain,” which has 1.9 million views.

In New York, where the New York Times says more than 18 percent of all grand larcenies last year involved Apple products, a man discovered that the thief of his iPhone was using his OKCupid profile to send out messages to girls. According to the New York Post, he made a profile for woman and invited the man to his home for a date. When the man arrived, clean-shaven and smelling of cologne, he showed him a hammer, demanded his phone back, then handed him $20 to smooth things over.

Its not the first or last time that someone has retrieved their phone without the help of police. Given how many devices are stolen, and not necessarily because of mugging or larceny, police departments don’t have resources to track every single one. But the do-it-yourself trend has law enforcement worried that people will place themselves in dangerous, confrontational situations and get hurt. In other cases, the technology may not provide specific enough information. What if it takes you to a large apartment building?

But in cases where the police can work with the information provided by the owner of a device, it seems like a win-win. The owner increases their odds of retrieving expensive equipment and the police get to pat themselves on the back for a quick solve.