Self-Recovery Leads to Dangerous Situations

You’ll hear in the media many sensationalized stories of how people tracked down and recovered their own mobile devices using tracking software. These people often receive a lot of praise for what is a seriously dangerous activity. For example, everyone is giving praise to a New York man, Nadav Nirenberg, who created a phony online dating profile to trick the person who stole his iPhone into meeting, then threatened him with a hammer… only, what if it had backfired?

What you don’t often hear are the cautionary tales of such actions. While there is a chance you may recover your own stolen mobile device (which is iffy, given the unreliability of GPS), we are always concerned when individuals attempt to do so. Vigilantism is dangerous. There is no way for you to know who is on the other side of a crime.

Many thefts are often tied to larger crime rings, gangs or known criminals; attempting to recover your own device could put you or others at risk for further crimes, be subject to criminal and civil liability in the US by invading the privacy of others when using tracking software independent of law enforcement professionals, or confront someone who was unknowingly purchased a stolen phone.

Rather than taking our word that vigilantism is dangerous, we want to let these examples speak for themselves.

Vigilantism Gone Wrong: Dangerous Outcomes

iPhone Recovery Turns Violent

Kenneth Schmidgall lost his iPhone on December 30, 2012. Along with friend Greg Torkelson, the pair spent several hours tracking the GPS before confronting a man on a bicycle. The pair were aggressive in attempting to retrieve the iPhone, including the use of pepper spray, and the whole incident was recorded on video; luckily an off-duty police officer was there to step in and prevent further violence. The pair have no regrets for “standing up” or their property, though they were very lucky that nobody was seriously hurt.

iPhone Theft Vigilante Attacks Wrong Person

Carl Ippolito, a youth baseball umpire in New Jersey struck out a man he thought had stolen his iPhone only to discover he’d attacked the wrong man. Carl had relied on the GPS information on his phone’s tracking app but was victim to local interference which made the data inaccurate.

The umpire was subsequently charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct. The phone? He had accidentally left it in the little league field’s “snack shack” – it was never stolen at all.

Attempted Self-Recovery Lands Man in Hospital

WSJ writer Wolfe Winkler shares his own experience of being on a Brooklyn subway when his date’s iPad was stolen from her lap. Instinctively, Wolfe chased after the thief, unaware that he was supported by others. Wolfe ended up injured on the platform with his jaw split in half.

Fight Over Cell Phone Leads to Stabbing

A 19-year-old teen and his friend left a party, boarded a New York train and fell asleep. When they awoke, the victim found that his phone was missing. Spotting a couple in the car and the missing phone in the man’s hands, a fight ensued. The brawl spilled onto a station platform where the robber stabbed the victim multiple times in the body and head.

Internet Swarm Leads to Lynch Mob

In 2005, New York’s John Clennan posted photos to a message board about a man who stole his cell phone. Vigilante justice steamrolled and suddenly other users were revealing personal information about the thief, where he lived, as well as information about his family. He later regretted his decision, stating: “In another time this would be described as a lynching and you people would be called a lynch mob. Yes, I know I’m the one who started this, it was bad judgment on my part. People who… had nothing to do with this have been dragged in just due to the fact that they keep extremely bad company.”

Leave Investigations to the Professionals

Device recovery is dangerous, even for legal professionals. In one situation, police tracked down two men suspected of stealing an iPhone by gunpoint leading to shots fired, a cop chase, and a school lockdown before apprehending the suspects. In another situation, law enforcement officers recovered a stolen laptop from a house (thanks to LoJack for Laptops) whose owner had many stolen phones and an assault rifle on hand. Had individuals attempted self-recovery, they may have put themselves at risk of serious personal harm.

Many people complain that police do not act upon tracking information. Most people don’t realize that the legal process does take time. Though tracking software may supply information quickly to police about a location of a stolen or lost device, police must still follow protocols in gathering enough evidence to obtain a search warrant and arrest; GPS alone isn’t enough, particularly if it pinpoints a densely populated area. Many devices are re-sold, further complicating the process and leading to a longer investigation to find the original perpetrator of the crime.

Consumers should realize that it can take up to 45 days to recover a stolen device, even when it has been tracked down. In our society of immediate gratification, it’s difficult to sit back and wait. However, hopefully some of these cautionary tales will make you think twice about being a vigilante. Learn more by downloading the Absolute Software whitepaper on Cyber Vigilante Justice.

Prevent Device Theft

When it comes to device tracking, choose software such as our own Computrace Mobile that will not only track down the stolen device, but will use our team of 50+ investigators and information analysts to work with law enforcement to retrieve your stolen device without violating any laws and without putting you, the theft victim, at any personal risk of physical harm or other forms of retaliation.

Learn more about preventing device theft in these key posts: how to avoid becoming a mobile robbery victim, the best practices for mobile security & safety.

If you do find yourself being threatened for your smartphone, don’t struggle: give up your device and call local law enforcement agencies for help at your first opportunity.

Arieanna Schweber
Arieanna Schweber has been a part of the Absolute writing team since 2007. Arieanna was Canada’s first female professional blogger and has been professionally blogging since 2006 and has spoken at leading blogging conferences including BlogHer and Northern Voice. Arieanna has a joint degree in Business and Communications from Simon Fraser University and continues to build communities for Vancouver-based clients.


  1. I can’t believe we don’t hear more of these. Seems like these stories should be included with every successful story.

  2. Wow, those are some crazy stories about self-recovery! I have an iPhone and installed the app that allows to track your phone and remotely wipe all data from it. Thanks for sharing this article, which makes a lot of sense because GPS location depends on whether the WiFi is turned on or not. Finally, thanks for making the recommendation to contact the local police in case a phone is lost, it is good advice.