July 1, 2011— -- Sally Hootnick of Manlius, N.Y., put her iPad's tracking application to the test after she accidentally left it on a plane when returning from a Caribbean vacation. She followed the lost iPad as it traveled back and forth -- twice -- between New York's Long Island and California.
Using the Apple MobileMe app, which can trace devices to their exact location when they're turned on, Hootnick not only watched her iPad traverse the country but sent it messages, demanding that the person who had taken it return it. She even activated a beeping noise to begin every couple minutes, just to annoy the perpetrator.
"I didn't want him to enjoy it if he was using it," she told Syracuse's Post-Standard.
Hootnick is only the most recent victim to join the band of "citizen detectives" who use technology to track down their lost goods. Black Eyed Peas singer Will.i.am used the MobileMe iPad app to recover items stolen from his parked Bentley, and a Pennsylvania man used it to help police find the men who'd robbed him. When a mother-daughter pair had their purses swiped inside a Tampa, Fla., park they got them back thanks to the MobileMe app on a phone tucked inside one of the bags.
Hugo Scheckter, a student at George Washington University, had his iPad and laptop stolen from his dorm room. Again, with the MobileMe app on his iPad, Scheckter played sleuth, tracking his device right down to a room in a house in Landover, Md. Scheckter called a detective and police recovered the iPad, even though the laptop and $500 in cash are still at large.
"The police were fairly helpful but were reluctant to use [my tip] at first," said Scheckter in an email to ABCNews.com. "I had to explain it to about five different people before I spoke to someone who got what I was talking about. They were wary of busting into a house from a random tip, but once they saw the accuracy, they warmed to it."
Because the application provides a map of the exact location of a device, Scheckter said it was difficult to resist taking matters into his own hands, especially since he knew exactly where his stolen iPad was being kept.
"I actually spoke with an old friend of mine who had some ex-special forces friends who were looking for a job. I was fairly tempted to pay them to go and smash the place up, but an iPad isn't worth anyone getting hurt over, so I didn't go down that route. I wasn't really tempted to go there myself, as it wasn't a great part of town, at night. … It just had the potential to go so bad."
Scheckter said as he watched his iPad through the tracking application, he felt so violated that he bought a baseball bat to keep in his room. After police returned the iPad to Scheckter, he could tell that the man who'd been using it had been looking through his emails and family photos.
"It made me feel sick. ... He then looks through my personal stuff. It's really horrible. Having said that, had he wiped it, I wouldn't have been able to track it. But still, it's really creepy and disgusting," he said.
Technology Does Not Replace 'Old-Fashioned Policework'
Sgt. Mike Schaller of the El Paso County Sheriff's Department in Colorado said his office cracked a case involving a stolen truck because the truck's owner had left his iPhone inside the vehicle and could trace its whereabouts through the phone's GPS application.
Tracking applications, whether it's MobileMe or GPS, are not something police shy away from, said Schaller.
"There are significant benefits to technology as demonstrated in this case," said Schaller, whose department captured the alleged burglar in less than 25 minutes, and after the arrest, linked him to other motor vehicle thefts and break-ins in the area.
But Schaller took care to point out that these tracking apps would never replace good, old-fashioned policework, adding that having citizens' help in making arrests is simply an added benefit.
"[This technology] doesn't change the way we operate, but it does enhance it. It's never going to be a substitute for the human element," he said. "Technology is only going to be as good as the person operating it."
Tracking applications bring another benefit to crime solving, said Dennis Kenny, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
"It's very useful to police, and probably the bigger effect for them is that they can prevent crimes. … It's increasingly known that these devices have that [tracking] capability and that has an impact on reducing crime," he said. "Police like things that make their jobs easier."