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Why “find my phone” apps keep sending people to one couple’s house

People searching for their lost and stolen smartphones using phone-tracking software keep turning up at the suburban Atlanta home of Christina Lee and Michael Saba.

People searching for their lost and stolen smartphones in the vicinity of Atlanta, Georgia, keep turning up at the home of Christina Lee and Michael Saba.

It happens quite a bit: about 12 times in the past year, people have showed up at Lee and Saba’s home asking for their lost/stolen devices, sometimes belligerently, because of a quirk in the phone tracking technology in recent versions of iPhone and Android.

One time it was the police, who were searching for a missing person by tracing her phone, which led them to the couple’s home.

The couple have been fortunate, so far, to avoid anything more serious than awkward conversations and a police search of their home, but Saba is worried things could go badly, as he told Fusion:

My biggest fear is that someone dangerous or violent is going to visit our house because of this. If or when that happens, I doubt our polite explanations are gonna go very far.

Lee and Saba are not serial phone thieves, so what’s going on here?

The people who come knocking at Lee and Saba’s house are using anti-theft phone tracking features including Find My iPhone for iOS.

Find My iPhone, and a similar feature called Device Manager for Android devices, have been pretty successful at deterring smartphone theft.

These features allow you to log into your Apple iCloud or Google account to lock or remotely wipe your device if your phone is lost or stolen. They will also show you the (approximate) location of your lost device – so long as your phone is still on.

That’s right – find-my-phone features can provide the approximate location, but some quirks in how they use geolocation can make them inaccurate enough to cause some confusing and unfortunate incidents.

Find-my-phone features rely on GPS signals from the device, but if GPS isn’t available, the tracker software will use nearby cell towers, Wi-Fi signals, or IP addresses to locate the device.

But imprecision, and perhaps inaccuracies, in the data these phone tracking services are using can lead to mix-ups which, while rare, happen from time to time.

It happened to Wayne Dobson, who in 2013 got so fed up with people coming to his Las Vegas house looking for their lost phones that he eventually put a sign on his front lawn saying: NO LOST CELLPHONES!!

This kind of “imprecise precision” also led police to break down the door of a house in Sherwood, Nottingham, England in 2012, in search of a stolen iPhone.

Key Westin, a security analyst who once worked for a device-tracking app company, told Fusion that faulty device tracking could be caused by a flaw in cell tower triangulation, which might lead the tracking software to select one default location when a more precise location isn’t available.

The Atlanta couple have decided to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, and with their senator.

Image of houses courtesy of


The police searched their home for no valid reason, but they are “fortunate”? Lucky they haven’t been killed. To me, this is SWATing, pure and simple. The software makers should be facing criminal charges. Like right now.


in the last 2 months 2 people have shown up at my work angry, and threatening looking for their lost or stolen Iphone, trying to barge in as soon as I open the door to see what they want, the lady today had a can of mace in her hand.
Their cellphones are not here.

I have been called every name in the book by these people, threatened, and have so far diffused the situation. it’s not here, Maybe its in the storage facility that owns the rest of the block, maybe they were driving by when you pinged it, I don’t know, but I don’t have it, and you aren’t the first to come here looking. a month back I had an angry woman from Atlanta call the business number screaming about stealing her Atlanta Iphone.

Serious as a heart attack, Someone is going to get hurt if this keeps happening if one of them shows up and tries to force their way in, it’s a secure building not open to the public. Forced entry is burglary simple as that.

I’m done playing understanding and nice guy about it and getting verbally abused and accused because of their stupid app.


What it SHOULD do, when it doesn’t have a precise location, is draw a shaded circle covering the wide possible area, instead of picking a specific default point.


or you know the police could just say that “find my iPhone” sent them to this address so now we have to search the place… this could be abused. Police should not be permitted to break into a home for a phone…. how many unsolved murders are in each city across america, get a grip police state wannabees


You may want to read the article…as far as I can tell, the police didn’t “break in” and they weren’t looking for a phone.


“This kind of “imprecise precision” also led police to break down the door of a house in Sherwood, Nottingham, England in 2012, in search of a stolen iPhone.”

Sounds like the police breaking in to find a phone to me.


Yes, it does sound like that, given the way the story is written above.

But digging a bit deeper suggests that there was a fair bit more to it than that…


You may want to go re-read the article yourself, hero.

“This kind of “imprecise precision” also led police to break down the door of a house in Sherwood, Nottingham, England in 2012, in search of a stolen iPhone.”


I already admitted my mistake. My apology is further down the page, because of the way the comments were posted.

As an aside, I did re-re-read up on the issue of the broken door mentioned in the article and it sounds as though the full story is a lot more than “the cops broke down a door, on the basis of geolocation data, to look for a stolen iPhone.”

It seems that the cops went to check out an apparently unoccupied address (the house was being renovated) where they thought a burglary suspect was hiding out, because of geolocation evidence from a stolen iPhone. Making enquiries in the neighbourhood, they formed the opinion that someone had been seen inside the usually-unoccupied house that day.

So the cops were searching for a suspect for arrest, not merely trying to recover a stolen phone. And they used more than just the phone geolocation data as their reason to force entry to the property, where they wouldn’t have expected anyone to open up voluntarily anyway.


Paul: You may want to read the article…”This kind of “imprecise precision” also led police to break down the door of a house in Sherwood, Nottingham, England in 2012, in search of a stolen iPhone.”


I have apologised elsewhere for missing that.

But as I commented earlier (above? below?), it turns out that I don’t agree with the choice of words in the article, anyway :-) I think the article oversimplifies and underexplains what actually seems to have happened, leaving a misleading implication of incompetence or over-reaction by the police. But that is just my opinion.

(In the Nottingham case quoted, both the phone and the geolocation data were apparently only a part of the story. The cops were looking for a person, not merely trying to recover a phone; face-to-face enquiries in the neighbourhood seemed to corroborate the address suggested by geolocation data; and the property was being renovated and wasn’t being lived in, casting a very different angle on the forced entry.)


Any explanation of why it keeps throwing up these particular addresses?


I’m guessing (and it’s a guess) that it’s like all the US internet users who end up in Kansas because it’s the “middle of” (central point in) the continental US.

Imagine that you meant to say, “the location is a 200km circle around lat 135.23E long 35.95S”, but ended up leaving out the “200km circle” part as though it made no difference.
That sort of change turns what should be a huge “likely area” into a single point that implies a precision of a few hundred metres.


The articles says “This kind of “imprecise precision” also led police to break down the door of a house in Sherwood, Nottingham, England in 2012, in search of a stolen iPhone.” so they were searching for a phone.
But in the UK for the Police to legally gain admission to a propertry to conduct a search they need a Warrant issued by a Magistrate – they can’t just go barging in. If they do, they are breaking at least 3 laws that apply throughout England and Wales plus at least 2 in Scotland!


Ah, I should take my own advice :-) I was thinking of the US case, not the related one. Sorry about that. I should read the article again. Humble pie, etc.


Coventry police tweeted photographs of themselves inside unoccupied houses because homeowners had left their properties unlocked, yesterday. Apparently that’s fine.


This happened to me a few times at an old house of mine and is happening at my current address now on the complete opposite side of town. Wtf I don’t understand why this happens.


GPS Float. It happens even with Google Maps or any navigation based on GPS. It a satellite thing, and many variables affect GPS accuracy. Don’t think Apple can just “fix it”.


That’s not the issue here. This problem was caused by approximate data being treated as precise. Imagine taking general information such as “10,000 of our users can be pinpointed no more precisely that to say that there are somewhere, could be anywhere, in the continental USA”, and deciding you wanted to sound as though you knew what you were talking about… so you replace it with the bogus claim that “all those 10,000 people are exactly at the geographical centre of the USA, in Lebanon, Kansas, population 200”.


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