February 10, 2015
When a thief stole a smartphone recently in Western Branch, the tech-savvy victim knew what to do.
He had been shopping in December when he set down his phone, police said. Moments later, the Samsung Galaxy S3 was gone.
So the man activated an app installed on the phone called Track Viewer. The device covertly recorded images of a stranger using the phone.
Police distributed a photo of the stranger from the cellphone in early January and solicited tips from the public through Crime Line. Within two weeks, they made an arrest.
As smartphone technology advances, so does antitheft software, and a growing number of apps are giving users the ability to lock, erase and track phones with GPS. When a person reports a stolen phone to police, officers rely on victims for information about the digital trail of bread crumbs a thief may have left behind.
Often police are asking: Do you have an app for that?
“It does happen where the victims are helping us,” said Officer Kelly O’Sullivan, Chesapeake police spokeswoman.
Locally, police departments have not tracked how often they use apps to find lost smartphones or how successful the programs are in recovering the devices.
But police in Suffolk and Norfolk said they will use the apps if given permission by the victim, and the Portsmouth and Chesapeake departments have solved cases with the technology’s help.
In January, someone recognized the man in the photo captured by the Track Viewer app in Chesapeake. The tipster contacted police, leading to the arrest of 31-year-old Jemaal Lamont Whitehead of Newport News, who is charged with one felony count of grand larceny.
Detective Misty Holley, Portsmouth police spokeswoman, recalled a case from 2013 when a victim used the Find My iPhone app to recover her stolen phone. The technology shows users where the missing Apple device is on a map and allows them to track where it’s been.
That victim was able to pinpoint the location of the phone: at an ecoATM machine – a kiosk that recycles old cellphones for cash – in Chesapeake.
Similarly, owners of Android phones can remotely ring, lock, wipe or find their devices on a map through their Google account using Android Device Manager.
Mobile security software firm Lookout takes it a step further with its app for Android users – by snapping what it calls a “theftie.” When the app detects common actions thieves take – entering an incorrect passcode or removing a SIM card, for example – the app takes a photo and emails it to the owner, along with a location.
The challenge with tracking apps, Holley said, is that the phone must be turned on for many of them to work. If a thief can get into the device and wipe it clean first, the victim may be out of luck.
“If you can recover one person’s stolen property, I’d say it’s helpful,” she said.
Virginia Beach police are investigating another case in which they say a man took selfies with a stolen smartphone. The owner forgot her phone in a Halloween store in October, and when she went back, it was gone.
About a month later, police say, the phone uploaded photos of a man in a blazer and striped collared shirt to her iCloud, Apple’s online storage service. Police have not made an arrest.
A Consumer Reports survey last year found 3.1 million Americans had smartphones stolen in 2013, up from 1.6 million the year before. Of those surveyed, 22 percent had installed software that could locate a lost or stolen phone.
In Hampton Roads, phones account for a relatively small percentage of thefts. They made up 3.3 percent of stolen property last year in Suffolk and only 1.8 percent in Portsmouth.
A little more than 10 percent of larcenies reported in Chesapeake last year involved cellphones, according to figures from the Police Department. That was up slightly from about 9.5 percent in 2013.
Norfolk police did not have data available.
There was an attempt in the General Assembly this session to curb thefts another way: through “kill switch” legislation.
HB1281, introduced by Del. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, would have required all digital devices sold in Virginia to be equipped with a “kill switch,” or at least the capability to download such technology, which allows owners to remotely shut down a device and render it inoperable.
Minnesota and California passed similar laws last year.
Spruill said he proposed the legislation after constituents expressed concern over the rising cost of cellphones. If a phone is stolen, the owner can be out hundreds of dollars, he said, and a mandatory “kill switch” could make the devices less attractive to thieves.
Spruill ultimately pulled the proposal last week after a House subcommittee raised security concerns, his legislative aide said. She said Spruill plans to do more research and possibly amend and reintroduce the idea next year.
Margaret Matray, 757-222-5216, firstname.lastname@example.org