Gustavo Huerta woke up on Halloween in 2018 to discover that his SUV was missing— along with $8,000 worth of electronics that were left inside.
Later that day, Huerta found out that his stolen 2006 Dodge Durango was totaled and abandoned after being used to commit a robbery. His devices including an Apple Watch, laptop and camera equipment were nowhere to be found.
“I was mortified,” Huerta said. “I had spent thousands fixing up (the car). Some of that equipment was gifted to me from people who believed in the work I do,” said Huerta who works as photojournalist. “The rest was items I had saved up years of paychecks to afford. It was devastating.”
With limited help from the police, Huerta did what an increasing number of victims of device theft do. He put on his inspector gadget hat, tracing the whereabouts of his valuables using technology that’s available at his fingertips.
For most of technological history, victims of theft went through the four stages of grief —shock, anger, mourning and acceptance that you would never see your possessions again.
Enter the digital age.
Advancements in gadgetry make it easy for consumers to act as hi-tech amateur detectives on the hunt for their purloined purchases. Device location services, digital market places and websites dedicated to lost gadgets offer new options for those desperate to recover their belongings – with or without help from law enforcement.
“My assigned detective literally told me, ‘What do you expect me to do? You’re just going to have to take the loss,’” Huerta said.
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That wasn’t good enough for Huerta. Using Find My iPhone and several calls to cops he managed to track down a suspect wearing his Apple Watch within 24-hours. He continued looking for the rest of his items doing periodic searches on social media sites and marketplaces such as Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and OfferUp.
Twenty-nine-year-old Tiffany Mooney misplaced her Samsung Galaxy S7 Active on a shopping trip in Hanceville, Alabama in 2018.
Through the location services feature on the phone she could see that the device was powered on and in motion, but as she continued to call her number no one answered.
“After calling it over a dozen times, no one picked up. I turned to ‘Find My Device’ through Google,” Mooney said. “It gave me the option to lock my phone, erase all my files, or set off an alarm.” She chose the latter.
“After I triggered the alarm, the people who stole it conveniently decided to pick up,” Mooney said. “They were surprised when I told them that I knew exactly where they were located.”
The people who had the phone agreed to meet at a local gas station to give Mooney back her smartphone, but not before they made numerous failed attempts to unlock the device, Mooney said.
Nick Jordan of Boulder, Colorado used Find My iPhone to locate his girlfriend’s stolen device that went missing at a party last year.
The 27-year-old walked up to the perp’s house “prepared for a possible brawl” but walked away unscathed.
“Fortunately for me, it was a house I had recognized. I knew someone who lived there. I basically said to him, look I know that there’s a phone in this house. I don’t want to get the police involved and I managed to get it back.”
Still, not everyone who loses their gadgets can locate them easily, if at all.
“Nowadays the suspects immediately turn the cellphones off, so most people just aren’t able to track it,” said Jeff Brieden, a senior police officer with the Houston Police Department. Brieden wasn’t involved in Huerta’s case.
In fact, a study of theft victims conducted by IDG Research found that 1 in 10 U.S. smartphone owners were victims of phone theft. Of those, 68 percent of victims were unable to recover their devices after the theft occurred.
“A lot of elements have to come together for us to be able to find it,” Brieden said. “GPS may lead you to an apartment complex, but rarely to a specific apartment or house.”
Whether location services lead you straight to the criminal or not, attempting to retrieve your tech from robbers, burglars and pickpockets can be dangerous.
In 2015, an 18-year-old man named Jeremy Cook was fatally shot after trying to retrieve his stolen iPhone from thieves in Ontario, Canada. In the middle of the night, Cook and his sister used the Find My iPhone app to trace his smartphone’s location after he left the device in a taxi.
He died from a gunshot wound to the chest after confronting a group of men who had the device, police told CBC News.
“You never want to take things into your own hands. Anytime a crime is committed you want to get the police involved,” Brieden said. Brieden has worked in the robbery division of the Houston Police Department for 11 years.
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Stolen tech devices, which can easily be converted into cash, often pop up on online marketplaces like Facebook and Craigslist where sellers can semi-anonymously exchange the goods with unsuspecting buyers for money.
Both Facebook and OfferUp have ways to report sellers of stolen merchandise. Craigslist offers tips for avoiding fraud on its platform. USA TODAY reached out to Facebook, OfferUp and Craigslist for comment.
“In major metro areas a stolen smartphone is basically worth $100 to $300 cash, no questions asked,” according to Eugene Roy, who was chief of detectives for the Chicago Police Department before retiring. Thieves can sell the devices to small shops that can unlock a phone, remove the SIM card and sell it as a refreshed device, he said.
To combat this, The U.S. wireless industry, through its trade group the CTIA, launched a tool in 2017 that lets people look up whether a phone has been reported lost or stolen.
Called the Stolen Phone Checker, the service works by looking up a device’s IMEI, MEID, or ESN — unique codes that smartphone developers assigned to every smart device.
Since it’s launch, the number of consumers reporting a stolen phone has dropped nearly 60 percent, according to the CTIA.
It took almost two months for Huerta’s camera equipment to appear on Facebook Marketplace. He had a friend reach out to the seller on the social networking site and the suspect eventually told them that he decided to sell everything to a nearby pawn shop in Northline, Houston.
“The pawn shop was definitely a bit hostile or resilient when I went to retrieve my things,” Huerta said. “But once the cops showed up to help, they were more accommodating and took me more seriously.” The camera equipment is now in police custody.
Brieden said that Houston authorities sometimes find stolen devices in kiosks, like ecoATMs, that offer cash for old or broken cell phones. He said that thieves tend to split the profit with a third party who deposits the cellphone in the kiosk.
Some communities throughout the U.S. offer “safe deal zones,” where people can safely meet with strangers to sell devices or get their smartphones back from good samaritans. These areas are often located near police precincts and are heavily monitored by camera, Roy said. “You never know who’s on the other end of the phone or text,” Roy said. “The last thing you want to do is set yourself up to get robbed.”
People should think about how they’d locate their devices before they even get stolen, Brieden said.
“Many people wait until they’re a victim before they figure out how they’d find their phone,” Brieden said. “It’s important to remember, the location services have to be turned on and the phone has to be turned on,” for there to be a chance of you getting it back.
Have you used tech to track do your stolen goods? Let Dalvin Brown know on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown