Cellphone Misadventure: With Or Without GPS On, They Can Still Track You

I go to the “slug” line, a little busier than usual. I fumble for my iPhone and drop it carelessly in my pocket as a white non-descript SUV pulls up. The driver indicates that I sit behind her, a move against safety protocol. It is a very crowded back bench with a child’s seat and assorted junk stacked high, obviously a rushed attempt at cleaning this morning.  I listen to my usual podcast with my head-set on.

“Slugging” is an organic ride-share around the D.C. suburbs to commute back and forth to the Pentagon and the neighboring office buildings via high-occupancy vehicle lanes without a toll.

As we arrive, she pulls up to the barrier, instead of pulling up to the normal “slug” drop off area, an indicator that she is going to D.C. not inside the Pentagon. As I hurry to get out, the chord gets wrapped around the seatbelt and my podcast stops. I move over to the barrier and put my stuff down to get organized, I grab the chord and the iPhone is gone. In a panic, I check my pockets. I turn around to see how far the SUV has gone, can I stop it, but it’s gone.

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I call my iPhone several times from my work phone hoping the driver would hear it and answer. I google “lost iPhone” and check the process to locate my phone. I sign into iCloud, access the “lost phone app” and to my dismay, it says, you must have GPS enabled.  For privacy, I normally leave it off.

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After finding the link to the “lost phone mode,” I follow prompts to leave a message on my iPhone and to lock the iPhone screen with a password. I leave an alternate phone number for the finder to call us.

Through my cell phone carrier, I attempt to suspend my account via a “lost phone” automated telephone system. However, I failed because I did not have a telephone passcode for my carrier.  I next log onto my account on the carrier’s website and suspend my iPhone account to protect my iPhone data.

Initially, I panicked because I did not have a recommended password to prevent unauthorized access to my iPhone. I was particularly upset that I had lost irreplaceable pictures and videos of my mom who had passed away this year and of our grandchildren. I was concerned about potential access to banking.

I decide to unsuspend the iPhone later in the day. As part of the “lost phone mode,” you can press a button that activates a sound on your device so that it can be heard. The sound is very annoying and loud as my wife can attest.  I check several times during the day to see if the phone was located by the “lost mode” and I also press the detection sound but no luck.

As the day wore on, I contemplate how I would replace it. It is very hard to concentrate, knowing that so much of my life data is out there for anybody to grab. By nightfall, as I check my email, I am notified by Apple that my phone had been found and it is on the move from D.C. to Alexandria, to Annandale.

If the person was a “slugger,” it would not make sense that she lived in Annandale and picked others in Dumfries, ten miles south. I go to sleep discouraged but hopeful.

I wake up the next morning early, after a night of fitful sleep. I imagine finding my bank account wiped out. I check my laptop and the newest message from Apple says that the phone had been in Dumfries most of the night.

I check the Google satellite image map and find the address located in a cul-de-sac of townhouses. I decide to go to the address, try to locate the vehicle, and to find the person who had my phone.

The Google map townhouse number given by the GPS locator did not exist on that street so I get out and look inside a white SUV for a baby seat – nothing. I go up and down the cul-de-sac.

The Google map insists that this is where my phone is. I see kids’ toys scattered and I presume that it must be it. I ring the doorbell; a bearded man comes out, I tell him my story, and apologize for waking him and his dog up. He assures me that his wife does not ride-share.

I next walk around the parked cars in the cul-de-sac, pressing the button on the “lost mode app,” hoping that I would hear the annoying radar ping sound inside the parked cars. No success.

I arrive in my office after “slugging” again in a convertible Mercedes. I log into iCloud and see my phone traveling on I-395 speeding towards the Pentagon. I quickly grab my work-cell and head for the slug line drop, continuously tracking my pinging phone. It is getting closer and I watch cars as they come and go.

A white SUV approaches, I recognize the Jamaican flag which floods back into memory, and I approach the driver; she rolls down the window and says, “Are you looking for this?” handing me my iPhone. I am overjoyed.

The moral of my misadventure:

  • With or without GPS turned on, they can still track you
  • Password-protect your phone to guard your data
  • Buy phone-loss insurance
  • Keep your iPhone in a deep pocket or in a purse
  • Be careful when you ride-share and never give up
  • Back up precious photos with iCloud.
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