News Column

Cops: Tracking software limited in finding stolen items

September 2, 2014

By Jay Meisel, Highlands Today, Sebring, Fla.

Sept. 02--SEBRING -- The idea of having theft-tracking software on cellphones and computers may help reassure people worried about having their devices stolen.

But local law enforcement authorities say while such programs may help occasionally, people shouldn't rely on them for recovering stolen items.

"That's more like the stuff you see on television shows and movies," said Sgt. Jeff Fennell, of the Highlands County Sheriff's Office, about cops being able to instantly locate stolen property through such programs.

Within the last month, such a program helped authorities bring charges against a suspected burglar. A victim of a burglary who had his computer stolen had a program that allowed a family member to access the computer through the Internet. That family member was able to get a photo of the user, who was subsequently identified and who was able to identify the man who sold him the computer.

Jason Dionne, a forensic technician with the Highlands County Sheriff's Office, said he's unaware of any other such similar case locally. He also noted the photo came from the victim's family member and it wasn't the sheriff's office tracking the computer.

Sebring Police Department Cmdr. Steve Carr also said he isn't aware of any recent city case where tracking software helped recover a stolen item.

Basically, Dionne said, cellphones may have an application that allows GPS technology to show where the cellphone is located. The same may be true with computers, he said.

Computers sometimes have remote access software typically allowing the company that sold the computer to get access to it when a problem occurs, Dionne said.

Some computers have hardware such as LoJacks that allow for locating the device, but that is rare, he said.

With the software and tracking programs, he said, the problem is that "for the most part if someone steals something they're not going to use it themselves."

When they sell the computer or cellphone to someone who probably knows it's a stolen item, the buyer will format the hard drive or remove programs from the phone, he said. They typically don't want someone to be able to trace the ownership of the device, he said.

"They're going to wipe it before they hook it up for the Internet," he said.

Even if the program isn't removed, Dionne said, generally if the cellphone or the computer is not on or the battery is dead, the program won't work.

"If it's turned off, it won't know where your phone is," he said.

In the recent case, he said, the ability to get evidence for law enforcement through the program defied the odds. Not only had the program remained on the computer, but the buyer also just happened to be using it when the family member of the victim used the program, he said.

Dionne advises that if someone determines the location of a stolen computer, "you shouldn't try to get it yourself. You should contact law enforcement for help."

Fennell said law enforcement doesn't use such programs to track stolen items. In certain types of cases, such as a kidnapping, law enforcement may get a court order to allow tracking, he said.

Generally, for individuals, the programs will more likely be useful if an item is lost and not stolen, Dionne said.

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Source: Highlands Today (Sebring, FL)

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