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NYers go digital to solve mysteries of their lost, stolen gadgets

(Getty/amNY)

(Getty/amNY) Credit: (Getty/amNY)

The advent of digital tracking apps - and the endless research possibilities - allows crime victims to play digital detective and solve their own property crimes as never before.

Tracking items with the aid of digital footprints "is more than a trend. It's a paradigm shift. You're going to be seeing these tools used ubiquitously," said Shelly Palmer, author of "Digital Wisdom: Thought Leadership for a Connected World."

"The devices don't want to be stolen," said Palmer, adding that people must act quickly before the gadget's battery dies or it is reset.

When E.J. Martin, 22, of Teaneck, lost his iPhone5 at the Port Authority last winter, his friend, Andrew Mendez, 22, used his phone to track Martin's missing mobile via a "find my phone" app on Martin's device.

The location search led them to an electronics store on West 38th Street. Mendez called Martin's number and his phone rang from the hands of a man nearby.

"He just handed it over," Martin said. "I felt mad victorious."

The NYPD logged 15,973 reported thefts of Apple products alone in 2012. But according to national numbers supplied by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 52% of burglary victims and 30% of theft victims bothered reporting their victimizations to the police in 2011.

This DIY justice is driven by a lot of "sheer rage" at the temerity of thieves, and the knowledge that "the clock is ticking when these things are taken," said Eugene O'Donnell, a former NYPD cop and prosecutor who is now a professor of law and police at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"Technology trumps a badge" in finding many lost items, O'Donnell said.


The NYPD, however, has a different take.

"We do not encourage people to try and recover property themselves because it could be dangerous," said NYPD spokeswoman Det. Cheryl Crispin.

The NYPD does, however, sometimes play a role in DIY justice. Some apps, such as stolen-car-tracking app LoJack, only work with police participation.

Still, crafty victims can sometimes get the job done without official police help.

Twenty months after a fancy new $3,000 camera vanished from his Lower East Side production studio East Pleasant during a July 2010 music video shoot, owner and director Xander Strohm, 36, stumbled on a website called "stolencamerafinder."

The website uses metadata embedded in photos uploaded online to ID the camera that took the photos, a process that led Strohm to a man who had posted pictures of a tennis event.

The man said he bought it on eBay, but refused to get Strohm a receipt.
Then a colleague recognized the man's name: He had visited Strohm's studio the day the camera vanished.

Strohm took his evidence to police, nothing could be done because he didn't file a police report. But a sympathetic detective called the suspect and told him he could get in a great deal of trouble if he did not "do the right thing" and return the camera, Strohm said.

"A week or two later, it showed up in the mail" with a note alluding to calls from the police and Manhattan District Attorney, Strohm said.

"That's all the admission of guilt I needed," he said. "I felt vindicated. I felt amazing!"

(with Anna Sanders)

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The average New Yorker loses their phone about once a year, according to Lookout, which makes one of the many "find your phone" apps and claims to have located $35 million worth of phones in 2011. While the company cannot tell whether missing phones have been stolen, left behind or lost, here are the top ten places in NY they "go missing."

1. Fast food
2. Coffee Shop
3. Apartment building
4. Electronics store
5. Library
6. Drugstore or pharmacy
7. Pizza place
8. Bar
9. Salon/barbershop
10. Donut shop

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