Thieves may have used GPS to track burglary victim

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Woman driving a car. Image from ShutterstockThe owner of a jewelry store believes that one or more burglars stuck GPS devices on her car and on her son's car.

That, she figures, enabled them to track when her house would likely be empty so they could break in.

One suspect, who's already facing charges related to other crimes, was charged early last week in connection with the break-in, which happened in March, according to The Kansas City Star.

The jewelry store owner, who lives in a suburb of Kansas City in the US state of Missouri, wasn't identified.

The alleged burglar, Steven Alva Glaze, is facing 14 counts of criminal damage to property, theft, attempted burglary, and burglary.

According to the Star, Leawood, Missouri, police arrested Glaze, 36, on March 21 after a homeowner saw someone peeking in a window in the same neighborhood as the jewelry store owner's house - Overland Park - and then breaking out glass next to his front door.

The homeowner shouted, causing the man to run. A passing patrol car then intercepted a car that Glaze was driving.

He was initially charged in that case and with a burglary and theft the same day in Overland Park.

Prosecutors declined to comment on the victim's allegation about the GPS devices.

On the day the woman’s home was burglarized, her alarm system went offline about 2 p.m. for an unknown reason, according to the Star.

One of her neighbors said that a truck pulling a trailer pulled up to the woman's house and then backed into the driveway.

Burglar. Image from ShutterstockAccording to the Star, the woman said she came home about 5:30 p.m.. She found her garage "was like a war zone," as the burglar(s) apparently ransacked things she was keeping there during a renovation.

Glaze is accused of stealing more than $100,000 in jewelry, purses, wallets, luggage, coins and fur coats from the woman. She said her loss is more like three times that amount.

Ars Technica's Cyrus Farivar writes that it's apparently "quite rare" for criminals to use GPS to track victims.

It's probably just inevitable, though, given how often GPS devices get stolen nationwide, as Farivar notes.

How many? I couldn't find the number with a casual search, though About.com says (with neither date, source nor specific country - grrrr!) that 25,000 GPS devices are reportedly stolen from vehicles annually.

What About.com does have are these good tips on avoiding GPS theft:

  • Either remove your GPS from its mounting point take it with you, or stow it completely out of sight, including the mounting bracket and power port cord.
  • Wipe off that telltale GPS-mount suction cup ring. Thieves might well break in if they think you've stashed a valuable GPS device somewhere. Either wipe the interior window shield regularly with glass cleaner and a soft rag to get rid of the residue that leaves the suction cup ring, or carry a washable microfiber cloth (available in auto and home stores) to wipe off the ring.
  • Record and store the serial number of your GPS. You can often do this automatically as part of an online registration process while your GPS is connected to your PC by its USB cable.
  • If your GPS device has a configurable "home" address button in its menu, don't set it for your home address. You don't want to serve up that data on a silver platter to thieves, particularly if they also get their hands on your garage door opener or a spare key you might have left in your car. Instead, set the "home" button for a familiar intersection or business near your home.

But how do you avoid having a burglar track you by sticking a GPS device onto your car?

Fortunately, that's a rare occurrence. Most of us probably don't have to do a visual sweep to see if somebody's stuck a GPS device onto our cars.

At any rate, if you do a search on the tiniest GPS devices out there, you'll see that - whoa! good grief! They're really that tiny?! - if burglars got "Mission Impossible" sophisticated, you'd likely never spot the teensy things even if you did do a visual sweep.

I'm putting one of those on my cat, stat.


Images of Woman driving a car and Burglary courtesy of Shutterstock.

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8 Responses to Thieves may have used GPS to track burglary victim

  1. MikeP_UK · 479 days ago

    Surely a typical satnav style GPS device does not transmit data about your location 'live' and they can be set to not record location history. So the miscreant has to have had access to the device some time after it was placed on the car and then recovered it so 'he' could read the location data it may have stored. That can only show a probable pattern with no guarantee the premises will actually be empty. How long does the battery power of a satnav last anyway?
    The 'advice' given in the story is only relevant to helping prevent the theft of the satnav device itself from a vehicle and has no direct bearing on the break-in at the home mentioned. That the home was burgled is not in question but the 'story' about how they discovered it was likely to be unoccupied raises doubts.
    That a neighbour saw an unusual vehicle with a trailer back into the driveway of someone they would probably know was at work and did not check anything is cause for concern in that area. Usually, neighbours know more about you and your activities than you may like to think.

  2. Arthur Carter · 479 days ago

    Thanks for making this information so available to ALL current and potential burglars on the planet. Maybe you benefit by broadcasting this kind of information, but I think it's a really dumb move for the rest of us.

  3. Sophos, normally your stories are right on par for accuracy. You're slightly off on the GPS device that could have been used. I would highly doubt that a thief would or better yet could track someone with a GPS receiver that the normal person would have attached to their windscreen.

    What I gather the thief used would be something like an A.P.R.S. tracker (ham radio tracking transmitter based on NEMA/GPS) or even a tracking unit that some use in RC airplanes, etc for telemetry.

    They could have also used a cell phone with tracking software but unless it was a stolen phone the device would track back to the owner and if it were a stolen phone then it'd be too unreliable because you know the owner would have it shut off.

    -N1MJF

    • Lisa Vaas · 479 days ago

      The burglary victim didn't go into detail—well, at least, the newspaper didn't quote her as having gone into detail—about the devices she found, other than simply stating that she claims to have found GPS devices. It will be interesting to hear what the police turn up, device-wise, given that they didn't comment on her claims. I can't form an opinion of how likely her story is, really, but your input on various tracking devices is interesting, so thanks for your comment.

  4. Occams Razor · 479 days ago

    The sort of GPS device you go into detail about in the article only *receives* data from the GPS satellites.

    It doesn't let anyone track you remotely.

    Isn't it rather more likely that the rather hapless-sounding burglar "tracked" the victim's absence by assuming she would be at work during the day and thus that, ha, the house would be empty?

    As hunches go, it seems to have been pretty accurate, no? She wasn't there...she was at work, yes?

  5. Cory · 479 days ago

    For the average person, I suspect the smallest GPS device to be of concern would be the average smartphone. Certainly there are very small GPS receivers available, but they will need power, software, a way to transmit location information, and a remote UI to view the location in order to be useful. For most people, crooks included, the smartphone is a familiar and reasonably small device with everything built in.

    Even so, there are plenty of places to hide a smartphone that would escape casual inspection.

  6. Sarah · 477 days ago

    Leawood and Overland Park are both in Kansas, not Missouri - they are some of the more upscale suburbs of Kansas City.

  7. Rick · 473 days ago

    Even if you remove/hide the GPS device and it's windshield residue don't forget that you most likely will have a vehicle registration card and/or proof of insurance card in your glove box with that same information printed clearly on it.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.