News Column

Elkhart woman uses app to track stolen iPhone

September 4, 2014

By Madeline Buckley, South Bend Tribune, Ind.

Sept. 04--SOUTH BEND -- A search for her stolen iPhone took Kate Gassman on a trail through South Bend and Mishawaka on Tuesday, as the 24-year-old jumped into the role of detective by peeking in car windows and sifting through bushes.

In the end, Gassman got close, but the cell phone was maddeningly just out of reach.

The Elkhart woman used an app that can track a lost or stolen iPhone with GPS technology, as long as the cell phone is turned on.

But she was frustrated by what she saw was a lack of help from police, who could not help her retrieve her phone before it was turned off and likely lost forever.

"The fact that three different police departments couldn't help me during the time the perpetrator could have been apprehended is crazy," Gassman said.

Gassman's problem is one police say they encounter every so often, now that most people own cell phones they can track themselves. Sometimes officers can use the technology to quickly catch a cell phone thief.

Other times, legal and jurisdictional challenges make it nearly impossible to retrieve a phone, even if the GPS technology tells the rightful owner approximately where the phone is.

South Bend police Capt. Phil Trent said officers will sometimes accompany cell phone owners to a private residence to ask for the phone. But if the owner of the property refuses, police have no recourse to force them to comply, or even know for sure if they have the right home. The cell phone apps that triangulate location do not qualify as cause for a search warrant.

"Basically, at this point, we need the devices to provide us with better probable cause," Trent said. "They are not foolproof in spot-on pinpointing of locations."

And if the GPS trail leads to a place with many people, like a mall or a business, the phone's rightful owner is likely out of luck.

"If we track it to a parking lot with dozens, or hundreds, of cars, there's no way it's physically possible to make a lawful search," Trent said.

Other times, resources stand in the way of tracking stolen cell phones.

St. Joseph County police Lt. Matt Blank said the department sometimes can aid in tracking a cell phone, depending on the case.

"If there is a good solid lead, an officer will be able to follow it," Blank said. "But stolen cell phones aren't always our highest priority."

But that doesn't make it less exasperating for cell phone owners who get close, but find that the phone is still far out of reach.

In Gassman's case, she traced the cell phone -- which was stolen Tuesday along with her wallet from a building in downtown South Bend -- to somewhere near Riley High School. An officer at the South Bend Police Department said an officer may be able to accompany her to a location to try to retrieve it.

But then the phone moved to Mishawaka. The department told her it was now outside their jurisdiction and she must call Mishawaka police.

In Mishawaka, though, Gassman said, she traced the phone signal to Patrick Metals, a factory on the east side of the city. Police there told her they couldn't go with her to a place of business. Then, she said, they told her they couldn't take a report since the phone was stolen in South Bend.

Frustrated, Gassman called Patrick Metals and asked a supervisor for help locating her phone. She went to the site, and peeked in car windows and looked under bushes. She asked South Bend police to investigate the employees who clocked in when her phone arrived at the facility.

"It's a lead that no one followed," Gassman said.

She reluctantly gave up her search when the phone was turned off, canceling the service and getting new identification and credit cards.

Trent said police have to handle such situations delicately, without stepping on an individual's civil rights, as the cell phone apps aren't always exact.

Still, he recommended people call police before they try to track down their stolen phones.

"I would advise people go to law enforcement before they knock on a door," Trent said.




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Source: South Bend Tribune (IN)

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