How to Get Your Stolen Cell Phone Back
By Robert McMillen, Koin’s Tech Guru
Are you one of the estimated 700,000 people who had their cell phone stolen this year? Well, I am, or at least it happened to my family. We have a family plan with T Mobile that we have been using for years. My mom was very happy to be added to the plan because now she could call us for free even though we are over 2,000 miles apart. In the last few years, her knee started going all wobbly on her, so she had a knee replacement several months ago. After the operation, she spent some time in a rehabilitation facility near Chicago. We had been communicating using the cell phone I got for her last summer. Then one day, she no longer answered it.
I received a call from my sister that my mom's cell phone was missing. At first I wasn’t too alarmed. It could have just been misplaced when she transferred back home, but I thought it to be a good idea to take some precautions. I had recently signed up for the ability to limit how many minutes each of the cell phones in our family plan could use. My ten year old begged me for a cell phone for his birthday and my wife and I reluctantly agreed once we found out we could limit who he calls and how many minutes he could use.
Most major cell phone companies offer this service and it can be simply configured using a website. We can now limit text messages, phone calls, and downloads. For our plan it only cost an additional $5 per month, but your charges may vary. I logged into our account and limited her missing phone to just 100 minutes. I figured that way, if it was stolen, there wasn’t a lot of damage that could be done. The one thing I forgot to do was to turn off international calling. That was a big “oops” as you will see. By default, all new cell phones with a monthly service plan can call internationally and have unlimited text messages and downloads. I turned off the downloads, texts, and limited the minutes, but the last one got me.
After a few days, it was pretty obvious my mom’s phone was gone. I logged into the account and noticed some phone numbers starting to appear. Someone did have our cell phone and was using it. We tried to call our cell phone but the thief knew enough to not answer our calls. That was no problem, because now I knew who he was calling. Besides calling in and around the Chicago area, we noticed some Milwaukee, Wisconsin numbers, as well as many calls to Mexico.
I called the cell phone company and I was shocked to find out that calls made from our stolen phone are still our responsibility. They refused to credit them. It was a good thing I had limited the amount of minutes, or it could have cost thousands of dollars!
I had a challenge on my hands. I wanted to know who stole the phone and make them pay. At our computer consulting company, we get paid by people to White Hat attack their networks. That means we see what vulnerabilities a company has and try to exploit them, with the company's permission, before a real hacker does. One of the ways we do this is with social engineering. We call and pretend we are someone we are not and try to get the employees to give us information that will allow us to get into their network. We have become quite the actors, and we have yet to fail at it. Now I had to put that skill to good use once again.
I had to assume that the person who stole the phone had Spanish as his primary language because of the calls to Mexico. I figured if I called him, even from a blocked number, I would scare him off. So I had one of my employees who speaks Spanish start to call all of the domestic numbers that had been used since my mom had lost the phone. Somewhere down the list, we hit pay dirt. I told my employee to pretend we had found the thief’s security card and we would like to mail it to him. He sounded surprised we had his card when he said it was in his pocket but he gave us his name and address anyway. One of the numbers on the list was his own home number, and he must have used our cell phone to call his home. Now we know that Victor is not the brightest thief in the world.
I called the rehab facility where my mom had stayed and explained the situation. I wondered how the phone could have been stolen and ended up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin? After doing some checking, she found out that the phone likely got caught up in the bed sheets and was transported there because that’s where the laundry is done. I was shocked they transport the laundry over 200 miles, considering the cost of gas and the state of the economy, but that’s the way they do it. She also confirmed that Victor M. was an employee at the laundry facility.
After carefully considering the situation, I decided against calling the police as my first action. Since he rang up about $56 in international calls, I would have been ok with him returning the phone and the money. I called the rehab facility to tell the HR director this. She called the laundry facility and Victor’s manager had a talk with him. At first he denied he stole the phone, but after being shown the overwhelming evidence, he admitted to it. The manager drove Victor home and Victor said he would bring out the phone, but instead Victor locked the door and refused to come out.
Needless to say, Victor was fired that day. I then had no other recourse but to call the police. The Milwaukee police were very responsive and helpful. I asked the officer to call Victor and repeat the same request: return the phone and pay the money. No other action would happen. He said he would but he still never did it. In the meantime, I had a new phone sent out to my mom with a new SIM card in it so she could use her same phone number.
Having a confession already secured by the police, I knew I could have had Victor arrested but I decided to put myself in his shoes. Victor is a poor immigrant who worked in a laundry facility. He knows he made a mistake but he’s scared to death to go to a police station to return the phone, or even to drop it off at his old job. He paid for his mistake by losing his job and having the heck scared out of him. I decided to just let it go.
So, as a recap, you should pay the few extra dollars a month to have limits put on your phone usage in case it’s stolen. Have your international calls disabled until you actually need to use that service, and remember that any calls, texts, or downloads made until you call the cell phone company are at your expense.