Find My iPhone works!

Someone stole my daughter's iPhone 4S on Wednesday. We recovered it today, Saturday. The phone was a lost cause if not for Apple's cloud recovery service, which worked in an unexpected way overnight.

The saga started in the school office, where my daughter works for one period every other day. She often has out her phone and feels comfortable leaving it at the table where she busies; the teens working there are all fairly honest. On this particular day, she stepped out for five minutes and returned to find the phone gone. Sitting where she had been: Another teen applying to attend the school, with her mom close by. My daughter used a friend's phone to call hers, but the sound was off. The iPhone 4S was gone.

Fortunately, she had it lock coded.

After school, my daughter called on another phone to tell me what had happened. I logged onto her MobileMe account, surprised. I was sure that I had migrated her to iCloud after buying iPhone 4S. Apparently not. I launched Find My iPhone and located her phone in an apartment building a few miles away. There it stayed for the 90 minutes or so until my daughter was ready to be picked up.

I planned to go to the apartment building with her soon after. Unfortunately, the Find my iPhone doesn't give street addresses, and the building was off an alley. However, there is a satellite view that gave good enough view of the alley. Meanwhile, I sent a message to the phone, with my phone number, requesting its return. There was no response.

Here's where I expected too much. I thought to bring my XOOM LTE, since it has cellular data, to locate the stolen iPhone 4S. But MobileMe wouldn't load in Google's browser or Firefox Mobile. So I grabbed my laptop -- the lovely Lenovo ThinkPad T420s -- thinking to tap a hotspot later on. As it turned out, this wasn't a neighborhood with Starbucks or other coffee shops, and the "checks cashed" stores on every other corner didn't have WiFi. We drove several miles away to a Starbucks, where I finally logged onto MobileMe, confirmed the smartphone's location and took a screenshot so we could locate the building.

As dusk approached, we finally pulled up behind the apartment building. We asked kids playing nearby if they knew of any high school students. There were males, but no young woman, they could identify. So I called my wife and had her log into my daughter's account and send a signal to the iPhone 4S. It was an unusually warm night for January, and windows were open everywhere. But we heard nothing. So, at my request, my wife sent a message that we had tracked the phone, were in the parking lot and wanted the 4S returned.

About the time my wife was sending the message, a woman came out to the trash bin. My daughter walked up and asked if she knew of any high school students living in the building. "Yes, my daughter". Then suddenly, there was recognition -- mother of the teen waiting in the school office! We explained the situation to her, but she didn't want to confront the daughter then and there. The teen would be out later, and the mom promised to search her stuff. She would call me. Call she did. Search she didn't, because the girl didn't leave the apartment.

We returned home and tried to find the iPhone. But its location couldn't be found. I suspected that the girl saw us talking to her mom from the apartment window and had turned off the phone. But it's possible there wasn't signal enough for location. So I asked my daughter to send a lock code to the phone, which would succeed if the handset was on. It wasn't.

Problem: The last location put the iPhone 4S a good block-and-a-half away outside a police station. We were no longer sure the teen had the device.

Thursday, I texted the mom and demanded, politely, she confront her daughter by explaining we had tracked the phone to the apartment and was it possible she accidentally had picked up the 4S. Later the mom and I spoke for 30 minutes. The girl cried and expressed horror at the mom's distrust. There was a recent family tragedy I'll keep private that in context made the tears believable to the mother and why I didn't go to the police. Okay, there was another reason. When bicycles were stolen from our locked garage, the police wouldn't come out at all but took a report over the phone. If they wouldn't assist with a residential break-in, why bother with teen phone theft.

The woman promised to search her daughter's stuff over the weekend. Friday dawned. The phone hadn't been turned on since Wednesday night. My daughter agreed to give the woman until Saturday. The phone was locked and hadn't been used. My daughter rightly worried that if we cancelled the SIM, her iPhone 4S would be lost for good. We couldn't track it.

Then something unexpected occurred this morning. That lock code my daughter sent Wednesday was still out there in the Apple cloud. Someone turned on the iPhone 4S at 12:40 am today, and the lock code triggered and in process located the phone. In the same place! Now it was time to act. My daughter took a screenshot of the location and filled out a police report she got from school. We would go to that nearby police station, file a report and ask the cops to come a block and a half to the apartment. But when we arrived in the neighborhood, there was no police station. Apple's map was wrong!

I called the mom and told her someone had turned on the phone and we had tracked it back to her building. I was confident that her daughter had the 4S and I wanted it back. If not, I would return with the police. I knew that was likely an idle threat; she didn't. There was a police station 10 blocks away, where we would go and file a theft report. But I expected no help for something trivial like a stolen phone.

The woman asked for some time, which I gave her. Ten minutes later she phoned and began: "Well, you were right". About five minutes later, the teen brought out my daughter's iPhone 4S and apologized.

The clincher here was something unexpected. I wrongly assumed the lock code was a one-time event. That it worked in real time, or not at all. But it hung out there in Apple's cloud, not just locking the phone (which wasn't necessary) when turned on but locating it, too. Once the location was reconfirmed, I was willing to confront the parent.

My daughter is ecstatic and relieved -- as am I.

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