Recovering a stolen iPhone

Ashley had her iPhone stolen while at Walmart #1062 in Friendswood this past Tuesday. What follows is the the story of how we got it back.

Shortly before 5:00 p.m. on Tuesday I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize and let it go to voicemail as I usually do. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a voicemail from Ashley saying her iPhone had just been stolen.

She had stopped at Walmart with baby Kayla to do some shopping when she needed to perform a diaper change. She set her phone on the changing table in the ladies room and accidentally left it there when gathering everything back up in the diaper bag. She realized she had forgotten it pretty quickly, but in the few minutes before she headed back someone had taken it.

We have Apple’s Find My iPhone enabled on all our devices so I immediately logged into to see if it was active. The fact that it had been turned off gave me a pretty strong impression that the phone had indeed been stolen and not simply picked up by a friendly person who would turn it in.

I placed the device into “Lost Mode” and included a message with my phone number and that a reward was available to whomever found the phone. This would ensure that if it ever did get powered back on, the thief would have a much harder time using it. I also checked the option to get an email when, and if, that happened.

Ashley hung around at the customer service counter inside Walmart for a while but headed home when it became clear no good samaritan was going to walk up with it.

After getting home she filed a report with the League City Police Department (based on my misunderstanding at which Walmart this happened at). They took down all her information but of course didn’t offer any hope.

And that was that. We contemplated if we should buy a new phone and I posted to friends on Facebook that I only gave it ever showing up online again a 50/50 chance.

My mother-in-law was over at our house on Wednesday night and as we were working to get Kayla to bed I got a surprise email from Apple. The iPhone had been turned on, placed into Lost Mode and I had a GPS location of where it was! Find My iPhone placed it in a Houston neighborhood less than 15 miles from our house, fairly close to the Walmart the phone was taken from.

We got on the phone with LCPD and it was at this time I realized the theft hadn’t occurred at our local Walmart but instead at the one up I-45. Despite a mailing address in Friendswood it turns out store #1062 is actually inside the City of Houston limits. I was immediately deflated. I deal with the League City and Friendswood police departments all the time at work and had some hopes either of them would of had an officer available to dispatch on this call.

But the City of Houston is a whole different beast with much higher profile crimes occurring at all hours. This immediately bore out as I tried to even get an operator on a non-emergency line at almost 10:00 p.m. It took a little while to explain what happened and how I knew exactly where the phone was located. She took my information and said an officer would call me back.

In the meantime I got to work online. I could see the iPhone moving around inside the same house on the Find my iPhone map overlay so I was fairly confident of the address. I used the Harris County Appraisal District’s website to find the owner of the house. I then used to find out who had a drivers license registered at the address.

Next stop was social media where I quickly found profiles for a mother and two daughters in their early twenties. My suspicions immediately fell on the daughters and I figured out where they worked based on information online. The one thing I couldn’t find were any phone numbers of my “suspects.” I reached out for help online but all suggested avenues came up short.

With no return call from HPD, hitting dead ends online and my mother-in-law here to watch Kayla, at about 11:30 p.m. I decided it was time to get “eyes on” the location.

I promised I wouldn’t do anything “crazy” then Ashley and I jumped in the car and headed out. It took less than ten minutes to get on scene in the typical suburban neighborhood of Clear Lake City.

My primary motivation was to see which vehicles were in the driveway. This would be a possible way to narrow down which family member had the phone, assuming they weren’t all home.

While in transit the phone had once again been turned off, but the last known location was unchanged. We made several passes of the house, located on the East side of the street in the middle of the block. We settled across the street to the North and parked several houses away.

It was now after midnight and at this point I decided to try HPD again. I went over the situation again with a different operator and told her I was parked down the street from the location. I think this is the part that got some movement. I was warned they were finishing up a shift change but that they would dispatch an officer to meet us. After about thirty minutes we were pleased to be joined by Cpl. E. Edwards from the Clear Lake Division.

Cpl. Edwards listened intently as I laid out the proceeding events and showed him on our iPad the last reported GPS location in Find My iPhone. He asked a few questions and was satisfied that the stolen phone was most likely located at the reported address.

We were thrilled when he agreed to knock on the door and try to social engineer the phone back from the thief. With my background I already knew he wouldn’t be able to search the residence or demand anything. It would all depend on his skills in extracting a doorstep confession.

We showed Cpl. Edwards a picture of Kayla which was set as the wallpaper and told him we’d be monitoring the Find My iPhone status continually watching for Ashley’s phone to be turned back on. If it did, we’d be ready to repeatedly hit the “Play Sound” button so the iPhone would emit a loud pinging noise even if it was on vibrate mode. If he heard it, this would serve not only as evidence that the phone was somewhere inside, but that it belonged to us.

We waited in our location down the street as Cpl. Edwards approached and knocked on the door. The porch light came on and we could tell he was taking with someone but didn’t have a clear view of who it was.

After a few tense minutes the phone appeared in Find My iPhone and we began banging away as the Play Sound button every 15 seconds. Five minutes later Cpl. Edwards was back in his patrol car heading our way. We were ecstatic when he handed over Ashley’s iPhone undamaged except for her purple Otterbox case which was missing.

Turns out our thief was a 49 year old Walmart cashier, it was the mother after all! Cpl. Edwards convinced her to confess and return the iPhone. He knew about the Otterbox case and our thief agreed to replace it if we came to her Walmart the next day.

She claimed she thought it was a friend’s phone, which is a flimsy excuse considering she removed the case and threw it away; not to mention the Lost Mode message displayed on the phone. That said, Cpl. Edwards thought the chances of a successful prosecution were low and we were just happy to have the phone back.

But that isn’t where this story ends.

With Otterbox Defender series cases going for $49 retail we fully intended to make sure our thief replaced it. Thursday morning we got Kayla squared away and Ashley and I headed to Walmart. Our thief told Cpl. Edwards that she would be working the cigarette counter after 10:00 a.m.

At this point we knew her, but she didn’t know us, so we got in her checkout line. I had been thinking about how to handle it so when it was our turn in line I was ready.

Jean? Jean P********n?” I asked with feigned surprise. “Yes,” she cautiously replied. “So you’re the person who stole my wife’s iPhone!

It was satisfying watching her deflate in front of the other customers I made sure heard me. She immediately began to apologize and when I asked about the Otterbox she said to go pick one up off the shelf and come back to her register. When we returned she used her debit card to pay for the purchase while continuing to make excuses and apologize.

Once we had the Otterbox and receipt in hand we walked away and found the store manager. I came prepared with a full write-up of what had transpired and contact information for Cpl. Edwards with the Houston Police Department. The store manager seemed pissed, but unfortunately I don’t know what, if anything, will happen to our thief.

The important takeaway here is to make sure you have Find My iPhone enabled on all of your Apple devices. You never know when it might help you get a lost or stolen iPhone or iPad back.

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