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iOS Detective: The Case of the Stolen iPhone

What follows is a true story that happened to me last night.

Posted in Technology
September 17, 2018 - 7 min read
The Scene: Alicante Airport

Due to exhaustion and the offer of a ride, I arrived to the Alicante airport four hours before my flight. I mostly spent it sitting around with my eyes half closed, half listening to podcasts. When it was getting close to boarding time, I checked the monitor and it said that my flight was delayed. This was not good news for me because I had a very tight 50 minute layover in Madrid to catch my next flight. The monitor said it would be 15 minutes until the next information about my flight, so I sat back down, read some tweets, and, for some reason, put my phone between suitcase and my backpack on top of the suitcase. A few minutes later, got up, leaving my bags within sight to glance at the monitor again. My flight was boarding!

I went and grabbed my suitcase and backpack and rolled it towards the gate. After about 15 meters, the podcast audio stopped in my AirPods. Ironically, I was listening to a podcast about the new models of iPhone that were released last week, none of which I’d rather have than the $1,500 in my bank account. I reached down to my pocket to grab my phone to start the podcast again, only to find my pocket empty! Then I remembered that I had put my phone between the bags, and I looked, and it was not there. I walked back to where I had been sitting, checking the floor along the entire 15 meters, but the phone could not be seen! I retraced these 15 meters about five times before I was convinced that it was not on the floor.

I looked at my Apple Watch, and it was showing the “not connected to phone” icon, so the Watch could not see the phone either. I cursed under my breath. My iPhone had fallen from its precarious place between my bags, and someone had taken it.

My flight was boarding.

I walked towards my gate and saw a line of about 25 people scanning their boarding passes. I looked down at my watch to see the time to get an idea of if I would make my next flight, and…

My watch was connected to my phone!!

One of the most useful features on the Apple Watch is the ability to make the iPhone it’s paired with emit a loud beeping sound, even if it is in silent mode. I’ve lost count of the number of times it has helped me locate my phone between the couch cushions. I quickly swiped up and hit the “Ping” button. Ears wide open, amidst the airport bustle…

I heard nothing. Shit!

Then it occurred to me that my iPad might have a better Bluetooth range than the Watch, so I pulled out my iPad (wifi only, not cellular), which I had recently had attached to the phone’s Personal HotSpot. After a moment of searching, push notifications started rolling in. It was connected!!

I opened up the Find iPhone app, which was ironically using the wifi hotspot of the iPhone I was searching for to hit iCloud to ask the iPhone for it’s GPS location to pass back to me through iCloud and then through the phone’s wifi to me. There it was, on the map, very close to me. Before searching, I tapped the “Lost Mode” button, and it asked me to enter a phone number to display on the device. I struggled to remember my home landline phone and typed it in.

The search was on!

To try to orient myself on the map, I walked 10 meters in one direction, but both the little dots were bouncing around in unpredictable ways. I turned 90º and walked another 10 meters. The dots seemed to be closer!

I kept walking, frantically searching the crowd of anonymous faces. In the movie version of this story, the camera would be whirling around the protagonist as he searched the crowd for a person he couldn’t identify. You know the trope.

As I was walking in the direction that made the dots closer, an airline employee stopped me. “Sir, you can’t go past this security checkpoint.” I explained that I had lost my phone, but that I knew it was around here somewhere. She asked if I’d like to report it to the police, and I expressed some doubt that I had time for that, since I was about to board a flight, but it turned out the police had a little kiosk very close by.

I explained the situation to the cops, and they said, have you tried to make it ping? I said yes, but that I hadn’t heard it. They said, “Do it again.” I did, this time via the Find Phone app, which I think emits a louder ping.

WE HEARD IT!!

The three police officers jumped out of their little kiosk and said, “Again!” I tapped it again. It was coming from the other side of the security barrier! The cops raced through a door through the barrier not open to the public, and I followed.

PING!

We turned to see a man at the front of a long queue about to board a flight, holding my phone. “Is that it?”, asked the cop. “Yes!”, I said, as I swiped it from the man’s hand. “I called the number it said to call!”, shrugged the British man, in English. (I did later confirm that I had a missed call on my landline phone from my phone at that time)

I thanked the police profusely and ran off towards my gate. I grabbed my bags and fumbled for my boarding pass and walked down the corridor towards my plane. So relieved!

But of course the corridor was full of passengers waiting to get on the bus to take us to the plane. I started up my podcast again and breathed a long sigh.

And tweeted about the incident, of course. 🙄

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A few minutes later, the airline employee that had just scanned my boarding pass came down the corridor and said the police wanted to talk to me. My face must have expressed my concern of not making the flight, and she told me that I needn’t worry, that the bus wasn’t leaving until she told the driver it was okay. The cop wanted my name, address, and info, so I gave in my ID card to copy it from. He then requested the IMEI number from the phone. Weird, but I guess he had to write it up for his report. I didn’t quite understand if they had detained the other guy or not, but I’m sure they pulled him out of the line to get his details as well.

I guess the guy at least made an effort to call the owner of the phone, but he did not do the responsible thing of turning it in to the police, like I have done on several occasions, much to my own personal inconvenience, with phones and wallets. I’m sure he was hoping to walk/fly away with it.


After some serious sprinting through the Madrid airport, my iPhone, Apple Watch, iPad, MacBook Pro, and I barely caught our next flight and made it home safely.


Thank you, Apple, for adding features like these to your operating systems.

And muchas gracias to the Alicante Airport police for your quick action. 🙏

© 2021 Erik Rasmussen