iPhone's new 'phone home' feature helps owner nail thief

Texas man recovers phone in Chicago using Apple's new MobileMe location feature

An iPhone 3G owner who was in Chicago to attend a convention used Apple's new "Find My iPhone" location service to pinpoint, then confront, the thief who made off with his phone.

"It was more instinctive than anything," said Kevin Miller today. "I can't imagine an iPhone owner who would see a map, showing exactly where the iPhone was, and not get in the car and at least drive in that direction."

Miller, a writer of training materials for a large technology company in Austin, Tex., was in Chicago with friends last weekend to attend Brickworld, a conference for adult fans of LEGO, the children's building-block toy. After eating supper at a bar, Miller forgot his iPhone on the table; even though he returned just minutes later, the iPhone was gone. No one in the bar had any idea where it went.

But Miller had recently activated the new Find My iPhone feature of MobileMe, Apple's US$99-per-year sync and storage service, and was hopeful it would help him locate his missing smartphone. When activated, Find My iPhone, which requires iPhone 3.0, displays the device's approximate position on a map.

After some false starts, Miller and two friends used Find My iPhone and a MacBook Pro equipped with Sprint 3G access the next day to first identify the street where his iPhone currently was located.

"As we drove, every five minutes, [Mark] refreshed the location [of the phone]," said Miller in a long entry to his personal blog on Sunday. "The phone wasn't moving. It appeared to be in a row of buildings on the north side of Medill St."

Miller and his friends got out of the car, and walking down the block, tried to narrow their search while simultaneously calling its number and sending it text messages such as "We have tracked the phone to Medill St. and are locating it. Please call 512-796-xxxx to help us and claim a reward."

The thief answered a call to the iPhone, but immediately hung up. About the same time, Find My iPhone indicated that the iPhone was on the move, and then identified its current location as near a bus stop. Miller and his friends closed in.

"I kind of mused to myself about the bad ways this could go, but there was a birthday party on the corner, and it was not as bad a neighborhood as some have made out," said Miller when asked if he had had second thoughts during the chase.

Someone at the bus stop, seeing the three converging -- Miller with an open MacBook Pro that he was using to locate the iPhone -- waved them over. "Have you got it?" Miller said he asked him.

The man, who said he worked in the bar where Miller had forgotten his iPhone, claimed he had found the phone and had intended to return it, but had been intimidated by the text messages Miller had sent to his phone.

"I did offer him what was in my wallet, $30 or so," said Miller about the reward he had offered earlier. "I guess I was giving him credit for not fleeing any further. In retrospect it was kind of silly." The man didn't take the money, but handed over the iPhone. "So I shook his hand, which also seems silly, and we just walked off," Miller said.

Although Find My iPhone did help Miller recover his phone, the service could be improved, he said. "Being able to use Find My iPhone on a different iPhone would have helped us out the most," he said. Fortunately, they had the notebook with 3G access.

Miller considered, but didn't use Remote Wipe, another new MobileMe feature enabled with the iPhone 3.0 update. "I did think of that, but it was the nuclear option," said Miller. "Once you wipe a phone, it can't be located, so I'd be giving it up for good."

Some have wondered if Miller's story was an elaborate marketing move by Apple. Miller denied it. "It wasn't, but it's as good an advertisement as any commercial," he offered.

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