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How Smartphones Are Turning Crime Victims Into Detectives 

Thursday, Jan 23 2014
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Elizabeth Gallardo wouldn't necessarily call herself brave. But she's a do-it-yourself kind of person.

"I've always had to get what I want for myself," the 30-year-old urban planner says. "I didn't have parents that got me shit."

When her iPhone 4S abruptly vanished in October after she briefly laid it down just outside her quiet Highland Park apartment, she went to her computer and clicked on "Find My iPhone."

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY BRIAN GUILLIAN
  • ILLUSTRATION BY BRIAN GUILLIAN

The web-based application provided by Apple allows any iPhone or iPad user to locate their device.

Gallardo half expected to find the phone beneath her couch or on some shelf. But the application showed a map with a green dot moving slowly away, down the street.

Gallardo remembered a guy with a loud motorcycle visiting one of her neighbors. It must have been him. "I thought, 'If I don't go get it now, I'm never gonna get it,' " she says. "It's like with anything – it's the five-second rule."

She immediately followed the green dot, which had stopped moving at a mini-mall near her house. Sure enough, she found a motorcycle parked outside a taco shop. When she walked in, she spotted a guy eating tacos, alone, a motorcycle helmet on the table. Tucked inside his helmet was her phone, its pink and green honeycomb–pattern case clearly visible.

"Give me my phone," Gallardo said, plainly. "I know you have my phone."

The man was flabbergasted. "What are you talking about?" he said.

"I looked it up. Give it to me."

By now, the whole restaurant had turned to watch. The man grabbed his helmet and her phone and left. Gallardo boldly followed, threatened to call the cops, and finally just snatched the phone from his hands.

"I think he was just mystified that I found him," Gallardo says. "It was like some Pulp Fiction higher power intervention. It was just so unexpected."

Welcome to Vigilantism 2.0, the do-it-yourself crime-busting wave fueled by tech products' dual role as both the target of thieves and a great way to catch them.

In Hollywood, police say, iPhones and iPads have become the No. 1 stolen item, overtaking wallets and purses in 2013. Even before that, LAPD made a big push citywide, via social media and blogs like Venice 311, to encourage people to install tracking software on their gadgets.

The cops can't always act when presented with such evidence. "If we have the resources available, we'll go out and take a look," says Lt. Marc Reina, a detective in LAPD's Hollywood division. But that "doesn't give us the right to go kick in the door."

That's not stopping some people from taking action on their own.

When Tim Martin's phone was stolen from a hipster dive bar in San Francisco, his search for the thief drew him, the next day, into a high-speed pursuit on the 101 freeway. Eventually, he, his friend Troy and Troy's girlfriend found themselves directly behind a light blue Toyota Camry.

Martin hit refresh on Troy's girlfriend's iPhone. The dot was right on top of them.

"So then we were like, what are we gonna do?" Martin says. "I've had other friends who call the cops, and they're like, great, I'll write up a police report.

"Finally we were just like, fuck it, let's go for it."

At a red light, Troy swung the car in front of the Camry, blocking it. Adrenaline pumping, Martin ran up to the passenger side and shouted: "Yo man, I know you have my phone, it got stolen last night from the Mission. I don't want to call the cops, just give me my phone back!"

The passenger peeked up at him, revealing a full gold grill. "Yo man, I ain't got your phone," he said coldly.

By now a crowd had formed. "Should we call the cops?" someone asked. "Yeah, call the cops!" Martin said. The Camry driver tried to back out, but Martin's girlfriend was standing right behind it.

The Camry passenger then got out and stepped toward Martin, who said carefully, "We just called the cops. We can get this resolved before they get here. Everything will be fine."

But the man sprinted off, so Martin took off after him. The man was fast but his baggy jeans weighed him down. Pretty soon, he was tired. Finally he stopped.

The thief explained he was running because "I just got out of jail, I'm on parole and I have a huge ball of weed on me." He unzipped his satchel and pulled out a gigantic bag of marijuana — then he fled.

Tim Martin never did get his phone back, and decided, "You know what, for a broke iPhone 3S with a cracked screen, 2 years old, it's just not worth it."

Cops want citizens to do what Kestrin Pan­tera did, not what Martin and Gallardo did.

When Pantera's laptop and iPad were stolen from her unlocked car in Beverly Hills, she reported it to the Beverly Hills Police Department. "They were like, 'good luck with that,' " Pantera says. "What I understood was, if I saw the person face to face with my stolen laptop, they would come and help. Until then, it was on me."

Then her husband, Jonathan Grubb, activated a feature Apple offers for lost devices, remotely programming the stolen iPad to display a message: "$500 reward, no questions asked," followed by a phone number.

The call Grubb got in response to that message was baffling. The caller wanted $10,000. Or maybe it was $5,000 — he mentioned that he'd somehow already made $5,000. Or maybe he wanted Grubb's credit card, so he could buy a bunch of cellphones and "donate them to charity." It didn't make a lot of sense.

Grubb convinced the thief to meet him at Muscle Beach — where the cops were waiting.

According to Reina, the basic Apple software helps police find loads of stolen iPhones, iPads and laptops — and more. About a year ago, two armed robbers took over a Starbucks on Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street and cleaned the place out. But they unwisely took one customer's iPhone. LAPD gave pursuit and arrested the two suspects.

Reina doesn't want device owners to do the job of the cops, "because you don't know who you're going to deal with. You could run into an armed gang member."

Private companies are helping people help the police. An app called GadgetTrak, for example, locates your stolen iPad or iPhone — and it can take a photo of the person using it and send it to you. You then can file a police report online.

Ken Westin, founder of GadgetTrak maker ActiveTrak, says he has nearly 150,000 users who own laptops, Android phones and other devices. He has found that about 75 percent of the time that GadgetTrak helps recover a device, it also helps find some other piece of stolen property.

"It's almost like the stolen device itself serves as a Trojan horse into underground theft rings," Westin says. "Police love it. ... It's making thieves think twice about stealing these devices."

Thieves are getting wiser. A friend of Westin's owns a bookstore that was burglarized. The thieves made off with a bunch of stuff — but not a display case of iPads.

Police departments don't seem fully ready for the reports, photos of bad guys and other high-tech evidence flowing in from citizens. CBS correspondent Carter Evans (he was the sole reporter on scene when police closed in on Christopher Dorner near Big Bear Lake) installed six webcams at his house, and the cameras caught somebody breaking into his car.

When Evans called the police to give them the footage of the perpetrator, the cops explained they had no capability to receive it electronically.

Despite the sense of control and security conferred on private citizens, not everybody is born to be a tech vigilante. Kestrin Pantera got her iPad back from the rambling guy who wanted $10,000, and felt a sense of triumph.

That changed when she had to testify in court.

"It was an older dude who had a bunch of convictions," she says. "When I finally saw the reality of a guy in and out of the system, the glory was gone. I thought, I had done all this just to get a piece of technology."

Reach the writer at haron@laweekly.com

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