Saga of a stolen iPhone, as told by a trail of automatically uploaded selfies

Filed Under: Android, Apple, Data loss, Featured, iOS, Mobile, Privacy

Phone in sand. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.They were two strangers on a Spanish beach.

They passed each other in the night - a night that neither would forget, and a night that changed them both... forever.

Yes, the life of the one they now call "douchebag" was changed because, as of that night, he had a nifty new iPhone, stolen from a skinnydipping tourist.

The tourist's life was changed too, plunged as she was into remorse and an unquenchable thirst for vengeance.

Not to mention her spiffy new hobby of chronicling the life and times of the thief, who, apparently, can't figure out how to turn off the auto-photo upload feature on the stolen phone.

Of course, we can't actually be sure that a phone was stolen or, if it was, that the man in the photos is actually the thief or was knowingly involved in any criminal activity but the victim/blogger claims to have identified the thief as a young man who lives in Dubai.

The chronicle of the alleged crime can be viewed on the victim's Tumblr site, which is titled Life of a Stranger Who Stole My Phone.

On 28 July, she told the tale of winding up at a beach, "hopelessly drunk and naked in the sea", 5 hours after having landed in "Ibiza/Spain".

When she and her friends emerged, dripping and starkers, everything was gone from the deck chair: money, purses, smartphones, passports, birthday presents, and clothes.

Her wrenching prose describes the group's dismay:

"well, that sucked quite hard."

The hotel receptionist apparently told the wet, drunk, semi-nude group that he couldn't help, that this happened, "like every day", and that nobody cared anymore.

According to the victim, the theft went down like this:

"apparently some guys with night-vision glasses hid in the dunes, waiting for drunk tourists to leave their belongings somewhere unobserved. then they crawled through the sand, stole the stuff and walked away like nothing happened."

But wait, drunken tourist lady who's probably sober by now, why couldn't you find your phone by switching on its GPS tracking function with Apple's Find My iPhone app (which, of course, you could alternatively do with Sophos's free Mobile Security app if the guy had instead taken your Android)?

Unfortunately, tools such as Find My iPhone don't often work.

Jesse Hollington at iLounge describes the myriad ways that thieves can get around such phone-finding tools:

  • If your device has no passcode, a thief can go into your iCloud settings and turn off the Find My iPhone feature just as easily as you can.
  • If your device lacks coverage, it can't communicate with Apple's iCloud servers to report its location or receive whatever instructions you might send it.
  • If your device is erased and/or restored to factory settings, Find My iPhone goes away, given that it's built into the operating system and not embedded in the hardware.

Most thieves are smart enough to wipe a stolen phone and destroy the SIM card.

This one, though, either didn't care enough to turn off the feature that uploads photos to Dropbox whenever the phone connects to WiFi, or he didn't care about his victim being able to see him doing lots of fun things with her phone.

But there's more! Apparently, in December 2012, the victim's friends asked why they were getting hit on by a guy via her Skype account.

Now-sober tourist lady, you probably realize by now that the Skype trespassing gets to the nub of what's particular painful about phone thievery beyond the loss of the device itself: namely, the loss of data, and the loss of privacy that this ushers in for both you and your contacts.

Find My iPhone will remotely wipe your phone, as will Sophos Mobile Security for Android, but alas, the same problems mentioned above with finding the device might well come into play with remotely wiping it, too.

You're right, it does suck, really, really hard, that your phone was stolen, particularly by a yahoo who does stupid things like play with perspective to make it look like he's holding a tiny person in the palm of his hand. (She's far away. We know that she's not a tiny person in your hand.)

Blog photo

Naked Security has some great tips here on how to protect your mobile phone.

Hopefully, you've already learned some of these lessons and are applying them to whatever phone you bought to replace that iPhone, but if not, please do give them a look before you go on your next beach trip.

Image of phone in sand courtesy of Shutterstock. Hand image courtesy of Life of a stranger who stole my phone

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25 Responses to Saga of a stolen iPhone, as told by a trail of automatically uploaded selfies

  1. people with money (the haves) outnumber the people with no money ( the have nots). so this is not a regular happening. but where ever you go there is always an opportunist thief. it is a shame, yet we all now have to be aware and have of wits about us when in a public space, kind of like having kaspersky on in public spaces, with a firewall. and turning them off when in private

    • GeeWiz · 789 days ago

      Saying people with money outnumber those without is an extremely ignorant and inaccurate statement.

    • Uh, wut? You have it the wrong way round. The have-nots FAR outnumber the haves.

    • JLO · 788 days ago

      Where did you get those facts from? People with money outnumber the poor? Really?
      Yo do live in a bubble then my friend.

  2. Why would she take her expensive I-Phone to the beach anyway? That was just asking for trouble.

    • JLO · 788 days ago

      ley me see... hmmm... because it is your personal communication device which you would always have with you... except when you need to get into the water.
      Maybe... just thinking here...
      The lamest excuse for any crime is when others say that he/she was asking for trouble.

  3. Big D · 789 days ago

    Why wouldn't the author of this article directly link to the victim's tumblr site?


    • Anna Brading · 789 days ago

      Hi Big D, as we can't be sure the man in the photos is actually the thief or was knowingly involved in any criminal activity, we decided not to link over directly to the site. I'm sure with a bit of searching you can find it :)

      • Mick A · 768 days ago

        Wise decision not to link directly... Could have all kinds of implications for Sophos in the future.

  4. Patrick · 789 days ago

    What an excellent article. Thanks Anna!

    I think many are missing the point, and that is you have to behave more responsibly when looking after your valuables when away on holiday or; well, anywhere for that matter. Good advice for anyone, not just the dumb, drunken beach lover types.

  5. I just want to read the blog and I don't want to have to search for it.

  6. Yes, it's foolish to leave valuables unattended. But even so, the person stealing them is the criminal, and blaming the victim is a trend that's far too popular in many spheres.

  7. Roberto Gonzalez · 789 days ago

    I saw the same article some days ago. In that article the owner of the phone was a guy and it was stolen at broad daylight. There was a a link to the tumbler account. The thing is, couldn't the owner of the phone call the provider company and deactivate the phone? He/She could have even contacted Apple (if it was an iPhone) and deactivate the account.
    The owner was so nice to keep paying service for a stolen phone? Absurd

  8. Eddy · 789 days ago

    It wasn't an iPhone. Apple doesn't allow apps like Dropbox to run in the background and upload photos. Sheesh.

    • JLO · 788 days ago

      Actually... yes... yes they do. I turned it off on kine because it was using too much data.

  9. you never said whether she got her phone back or not... that's rather relevant.

  10. Rhubarb · 789 days ago

    Victims do bear some of the responsibility when they act in irresponsible or dangerous manner. That does not exculpate the perpetrator, however. Get that drunk and leave valuables unattended? Foolish. Lurking in the dunes and stealing the stuff? Criminal.

    • JLO · 788 days ago

      And worst... getting drunk and then getting in the water. They could've died and the thief story would be irrelevant.

  11. dan madrid · 788 days ago

    something i have wondered about is how the phone services start a new account on a "stolen" phone!!!...Then I realize that to them its "more profit"....a new customer(the thief or stolen property accomplice) and the new phone they get to sell as well as the assurance to the thief that they will profit as well without fear of being caught.

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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.