How I tracked my stolen phone to Malawi

Cellphones aren’t just devices to make or receive calls anymore. These magic gadgets just about fall short of making coffee, right?

Jokes aside though, the most important thing these days about your phone is the fact that it contains such a lot of personal information – messages, numbers, pictures and at times, important notes. Add to that the fact that these days we screengrab and take pictures of things to remember and refer back to. Who still writes things down?

So of course to have your phone stolen is a complete and utter nightmare. Even with insurance to replace the device, the task of starting and storing everything from scratch can be overwhelming – especially if, like me, you rarely back things up. This was my fresh hell a few weeks ago.

From the start, I was urged to just fill out the forms, go to the nearest police station to open a case of theft and submit the forms to claim the device back from the cellphone provider. Let’s be honest, can you really expect the police to investigate your stolen cellphone case while general crime, much more urgent and pressing, is happening around us?

That was evident in the way the case was and is still being handled. It’s almost like the expected thing to do – just claim the phone back via insurance and be done with it.

The claiming process is another tedious process that you are put through – but that needs its own analyses.

It bothered me to no end however, that someone was in my house and stole the phone from right under my nose. More worrying was the fact that it was probably someone I knew. So I set out to find the phone myself.

I am by no means an IT expert, so I didn’t really know what to do and where to start. But what better platform to use than social media?

A Facebook friend suggested I use the Google Find My Device app. If you are a Google user, chances are your phone and its information are already stored. I for one, didn’t know this, that’s how unaware I was of what is out there that could assist in this regard.

So I sat down in front of my computer, typed in the address and viola – there on the screen were the details of all the phones that I’ve been using in conjunction with my Gmail address for the past few years.

All you have to do is click on the device you are searching for – with or without the SIM card. Up popped the phone’s information – Location: Unknown, Battery usage: 66 percent, Currently: Online.

Here is the fabulous feature that brought the entire search to its conclusion – you can send a message to your device.

I promptly sent a message stating that it’s a stolen device and that the matter has been reported to the police. Five seconds later, the device was switched off. I then moved on to the next step – wiping all content from the phone and locking it, because clearly whoever stole it, read the message and wasn’t about to politely return it.

The next morning I received an unexpected call – from the thief – a woman I trusted with my home and belongings, who travelled with my phone to Malawi. She apologised and admitted to the crime.

It’s unlikely that I will ever see her or my phone again, but the knowledge that I now knew what happened was somewhat comforting. All I could do was pass the information on to the police.

It’s a hard truth to be slapped with – that you are actually not as vigilant as you thought you were, that you are not street smart at all. It is however good to know that technology has evolved to such an extent, that if the device was still in South Africa, the exact location, street address included, could have been traced.

There are probably a few of these apps around, but if, like me, you were never in a position where you wanted or needed to use it, you probably didn’t know it was there. Now you do. 

- Faith Daniels is a seasoned radio and TV journalist, and is currently head of news at Kagiso Media’s Jacaranda FM and East Coast Radio.

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