Don't count on getting your stolen idevice back with Apple's Find My iPhone

Finding your missing device is one thing, but getting it back, quite another

find details lock screen 2x

Don’t panic. If one of your Apple devices goes missing, iCloud can help you figure out where it is. Just sign in at or use the Find My iPhone app to see your missing iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac on a map. And with the Lost Mode feature you don’t just see where your device is, you can track where it’s been. That way you can decide on your best course of action. You can immediately lock your device and send it a message with a contact number. Then whoever finds it can call you from the Lock screen without accessing the rest of the information on your device. - Apple

Ah, yes. “Find my iPhone” is, in theory, a great idea and, in practice, it works great helping locate your errant idevices. The problem is, even if you know where your idevice is, will you actually be able to get it back? 

Yesterday, I talked to a friend of my wife’s (I will call her friend “Sue”) who told me the following story: On a recent Thursday, here in Ventura, some 60-odd miles from Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, someone entered Sue’s home through an unlocked sliding door and made off with the most expensive and portable thing in sight: Her husband’s brand new MacBook Pro.


When the couple realized what had happened they logged into Apple iCloud’s and went to “Find My iPhone” (which can be used with all iOS and OS X devices) and set the laptop to “Lost Mode.” Then they waited. 

Finally, on Saturday, roughly 48 hours later, the MacBook was switched on and, voila! There, on the “Find my iPhone” map was the location of the device! This turned out to be what was, until a couple of years ago, a sober living facility in Van Nuys, a neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley.

They immediately called Van Nuys Police Department and … the cops weren’t interested. The couple were told that if the police went and knocked on the door and no one answered then that would be it, there would be nothing more the police could do. Even if the door was answered, the occupants would only have to deny they had the laptop and, again, it would be over and done with. In other words,  it wasn’t worth even trying.

Sue and her husband realized they only had one choice, click on the “Erase MacBook” option to wipe it clean. Sue said that this was “mentally useful; you can realize it’s gone and you can move on.”

This is the  disappointing reality of using “Find My iPhone” with stolen property because even when you know with a high degree of certainty where a valuable piece of stolen equipment is, it’s usually not enough cause for the police to get involved because technical certainty isn’t legal certainty. I just spoke with the watch commander of Ventura PD who told me that what action is taken, if any, depends on local departmental policy, manpower availability, and requires verifiable accuracy of location.

Sue and her husband considered claiming the loss on their homeowners insurance but they figured it wouldn’t be worth it because it would increase their premium so, to them, the loss of the MacBook has been consigned to the past.

The takeaway? If you think the “Find My iPhone” will help you if your property is stolen then, yes, it might but it’s a long shot. Apple's service is great for mislaid devices but in the case of theft, unless you have, shall we say, “enforcement” of your own, it’s going to be easier just to hit “Erase.”

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Must read: 10 new UI features coming to Windows 10