By Jon Barrow
I've carried a smartphone of some sort for nearly 7 years now without ever losing one or having one of those close calls that scare you into thinking carefully about recovery options. So when I collapsed into a cab at San Diego airport just after midnight last Friday, my Droid was enjoying the woefully inadequate protection it was accustomed to: a loose pocket in the front of my cargo shorts. At least that's where it was supposed to be.
I noticed it was missing as soon as I arrived in my hotel room and did my customary pocket dump. With the realization that I didn't have any recovery software installed, a receipt from the cab, or even any recollection as to which company I had used, I was certain I'd never see it again. I tried a few traditional recovery methods: calling the phone (it rang with no answer), taking a cab back to San Diego International (it was all but deserted in the wee hours of the morning), and creating lost property reports with each of the 7 taxi companies servicing the airport. After that, I decided I should at least look into after-the-fact recovery options.
A small seed of optimism sprouted as I read the Android Market description for Plan B from Lookout Labs. A remotely installable app which would instantly e-mail me the phone's location? It sounded too good to be true. I installed it immediately, sent the keyword "locate" via SMS from my laptop with Google Voice, and awaited the first e-mail. None came. Perhaps the phone had been powered off?
I called it again. No answer.
I sent "locate" a second time. Nothing. By now the adrenaline surge I felt when I discovered Plan B had worn off and I collapsed into bed, exhausted.
The following day I walked to the harbor and had lunch on the water. Pleasant weather, an ocean breeze, and some great seafood lifted my spirits, and I still had hope the phone would be returned. I flew home to Montana and the next morning I decided on a whim to send one more SMS, for some reason capitalizing the keyword as "Locate" this time. The reply came nearly instantly.Lookout Plan B has started locating. You should have your location shortly.This single message triggered a 16-hour game of cat-and-mouse, spanning half the country and involving a cast of disinterested bureaucrats, helpful strangers, and one witless would-be criminal. We'll call him Roland, because that's his name.
Within minutes I had received my phone's location with a reported accuracy of two meters.
I'll give you the benefit of the doubt for the time being
I did a reverse-lookup of the address and determined that two people were listed living there.
I researched each name, determining that one of them has a San Diego business listing of "Taxi Services." Alas, no contact information was provided. I turned next to the San Diego Police Department, Southeastern Division, which has its headquarters less than a mile away from the address, but it was unwilling to assist in any capacity. So I turned to The Lounge for help and got a private message in no time from a regular poster in San Diego. We agreed that I would continue to monitor the phone and we would plan a good time for him to drop by the house if needed.
I sent location requests to the phone throughout the day, notifying my Ars contact that the phone was in motion. I become worried when it sat here for nearly 10 minutes:
Benefit of the doubt has been officially revoked
I quickly looked up the phone number for the wireless shop at that address and called them, hoping to catch the culprit red-handed as he was trying in vain to switch service on the Droid. Unfortunately, their number rang through to a fax machine. The phone then stopped at a second wireless shop. I quickly called it, and after relating my tale I was put on hold, only to be told they couldn't provide any information about someone in their shop who was at that very moment trying to activate a used Droid, due to privacy concerns.
Late in the afternoon I saw that the driver had returned to work and was making runs from the airport to various spots around the city, stopping frequently at a parking lot across from a hotel just south of the airport. I tracked down a phone number for the airport taxi dispatch manager and explained my situation, telling him that I had been watching my phone being chauffeured all over the city by a driver who I think is named Roland. He told me there are at least 25 drivers in and out of the airport at any given time, and he doesn't really know any of them by name. Still, he would be happy to put a message out to see if there's a Roland who has a lost phone in his car. I thanked him and hung up before it occured to me that this is precisely what I didn't want him to do.
My heart sunk again as I requested additional location updates over the course of 15 minutes and noticed that not only was the phone not moving, it was not in a good spot.
Would it be wrong to send a stranger here to look for my phone?
I contemplated sending my San Diego Ars contact to the scene, but was not thrilled by the prospect of asking a good Samaritan to dig through a trash can or hop a fence to explore a demolition site.
What exactly happened at the vacant lot that day will remain a mystery, as the phone finally began moving again. I called the dispatch manager again. He reported that sadly, none of the drivers answered to Roland or admitted to having a lost phone in their car. I feigned surprised disappointment and expressed to him how frustrating it was to watch helplessly as the phone traveled all over the city. At that point, he told me that if I ever saw it in the taxi holding lot south of the airport, it would be easier for him to have the lot attendant speak directly to the driver.
Eureka! This was the lot I'd seen the phone at earlier!
I followed the cab's location as the driver dropped a fare and proceeded back to San Diego International. The dispatch manager had instructed me to call him once the cab was about five minutes away. When the cab turned onto North Harbor Drive near the airport I called back and we stayed on the phone together through the final moments of the hunt. When I told him the cab seemed to be stopped at a light waiting to pull into the holding lot, he looked through his office window and confirmed he could see it sitting there at the light.
We have a visual of the target
The dispatch manager called his lot attendant via two-way radio and asked her to approach the cab to provide the driver with a description of the phone, inform him that its movement had been tracked via GPS, and ask him if he'd like to return it now. The manager told me he'd give me a call back to let me know how it went.
A few short minutes later, the phone rang. "I've got it."
After being confronted by the lot attendant about the phone, the driver was "kind" enough to offer to drop the phone off at my house, but I would just as soon buy a bushel of Droids than pay cab fare from San Diego to the Big Sky country. Once the phone was in the dispatch manager's hand, I confessed that I was actually tracking the phone from Montana and couldn't exactly drop by to pick it up. He laughed and said he'd take it over to the airport lost and found.
Sure enough, another location ping a while later showed my Droid was somewhere in Terminal 1. I called lost and found, and was instructed to call the phone from another line. After they heard it ring, I provided a FedEx account number and they shipped it off to me.
I would not have been reunited with my Droid without Plan B, but there was help from other places, too. Our friend the taxi driver was at least kind enough to keep the phone charged over the 2+ days it was out of my hands. During that time, there was at least 16 hours of heavy GPS battery. The folks at San Diego International Airport were extremely helpful as well. They could have passed the buck, but they instead went the extra mile to reunite me with my phone.
This is the Droid I was looking for
Photograph by Alexandru Pănoiu (Android illustration by Aurich Lawson)
How Plan B found the Droid I was looking for