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This Company Can Find Stolen Smartphones (If Only AT&T, Verizon And Sprint Will Let It)

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Hugo Barra, vice president, Android product management at Google, holds a Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Edition while speaking at Google I/O 2013 in San Francisco on May 15. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

When Lawrence Flynn’s smartphone was stolen in Atlanta in July, he assumed it was gone for good. Weeks went by. Police had no leads.

“I had given up hope,” he said.

But an investigator at Absolute Software had not given up. Four months after the theft, Flynn, 57, got a call from the company, which attempts, for an annual fee of $30, to recover a customer’s stolen phone no matter where it ends up.

Using forensic tools embedded in the phone, the investigator tracked down Flynn’s Samsung Galaxy S4 in an unlikely place: more than 1,400 miles away in the Dominican Republic. Local police retrieved the device at an electronics store in the Dominican city of San Cristobal.

Earlier this month, Flynn opened his mailbox and found his phone.

“I’m overjoyed,” he said. “It’s a $600 phone.”

As the underground market for stolen smartphones has become a global industry, Absolute Software has positioned itself as a private detective agency of sorts, hunting down pilfered devices across the globe and helping bring thieves to justice.

The company's team of former law enforcement officers has recovered more than 30,000 devices -- mostly laptops and PCs -- over the past two decades in more than 104 countries. Flynn was among the first to sign up for the company's new smartphone recovery service earlier this year.

But Absolute Software's plan to extend its reach to millions of smartphones is in jeopardy. Executives said they had planned to embed their software, which can also disable stolen phones, in all new Samsung Galaxy smartphones and tablets this year. But wireless carriers, which decide which features are embedded in the devices they sell, have rejected the technology, according to Absolute Software executives.

“The carriers blocked us,” said Ward Clapham, vice president of investigations at Absolute Software.

One possible reason, according to top law enforcement officials, is that phone companies want to protect their profits from selling phone insurance. A service that could deter thieves may undercut that revenue, they said.

On Tuesday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent letters to top executives of AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Sprint and US Cellular seeking information about whether they decided collectively to prevent Samsung from featuring Absolute Software's program in carrier-approved smartphones.

In his letters, Schneiderman warned that “further scrutiny may be required” to see whether the business ties between the carriers and Asurion, the dominant provider of phone insurance through the carriers, influenced their rejection of a new kill switch feature that could render stolen phones inoperable.

“If carriers are colluding to prevent theft-deterrent features from being pre-installed on devices as means to sell more insurance products, they are doing so at the expense of public safety and putting their customers in danger,” Schneiderman said in a statement.

AT&T referred questions about Schneiderman's letter to CTIA, the wireless industry's lobbying group. In a statement, CTIA said that "any assertion that CTIA and its member companies have done anything other than move as quickly as possible ... to remove the aftermarket for stolen phones is false."

A Sprint spokeswoman did not address Schneiderman's letters, but said "there are numerous technical details that need to be reviewed before such a program is programmed on devices."

A Verizon Wireless spokeswoman said the company "has said clearly and repeatedly that we would support a free and secure kill switch application for Android devices if and when a manufacturer provides such a solution. Reports that we rejected such a kill switch are inaccurate."

Phone insurance plans typically cost between $7 and $11 per month, and require consumers to pay deductibles as high as $200 for a replacement phone.

Absolute Software said a standalone kill switch feature would have been free on carrier-approved smartphones.

But while top law enforcement officials have demanded that phone manufacturers create a kill switch to reduce phone robberies, Absolute Software executives say they would prefer their customers don’t use the feature. That's because killing the phone prevents them from gathering crucial evidence that could help them recover the device.

“Once you kill the phone, you kiss $600 goodbye,” Clapham said.

For $30 a year, Absolute Software can erase sensitive data on the phone, activate a kill switch that renders the handset inoperable, or attempt to recover a stolen device. The company does not yet guarantee that it will replace the stolen phone if it can't retrieve it.

If customers keep their stolen phones alive, the company's investigators can track the device via GPS, capture keystrokes and screenshots on the phone, or send a message to the phone notifying its new owner that the device is stolen and to call police. Then, they turn over the results of their investigation to local law enforcement.

“Often it’s enough to give them a very good lead to find who the person is,” said Jennifer Bramlett, a former Cobb County, Ga., police officer who is now an investigator for Absolute Software in Atlanta.

Law enforcement officials said they're grateful for the company's help because they often don't have the resources to fully investigate thefts. In 2009, for example, thieves stole hundreds of new Apple laptops worth more than $600,000 from the Detroit Public Schools system.

“Organized gangs were going into schools in the middle of the night and carrying out carts of computers and selling them on Internet or on the streets,” said Robert Barenie, an investigator for the school system.

After installing Absolute Software’s technology, the school district recovered 800 stolen laptops -- including some from as far away as Iraq -- and prosecuted more than 100 people, according to Barenie. The number of thefts has since dropped because thieves have learned the equipment is embedded with tracking technology, he said.

“The tracking tools are incredible,” Barenie said. “It didn’t take a genius or a super investigator to track down the computers.”

Apple offers iPhone owners the ability to track stolen devices with its “Find My iPhone” feature. Police have used the feature to recover dozens of stolen iPhones, but police also say that thieves have found ways to disable the software. Absolute Software said its tracking technology can’t be removed.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment. Last summer, Apple introduced a new anti-theft feature, Activation Lock, which the company said would render a stolen iPhone useless if a thief tries to shut off “Find My iPhone."

On July 24, Flynn left his Samsung smartphone unattended at a public charging station in a hostel. When he got back five minutes later, his phone was gone, he said.

It remains unclear how it got from Atlanta to the Dominican Republic.

“There could be a thousand ways that it got over there,” said Atlanta Police Officer Angel Bradley, who initially investigated the theft.

Flynn's was not the only stolen phone to turn up in the Dominican Republic, according to Clapham, of Absolute Software. Dominican police uncovered a “huge cache of stolen phones for resale" at the electronics shop in San Cristobal, he said.

The investigation into Flynn’s stolen phone “opened up a huge can of worms involving the sale of stolen phones from the United States,” Clapham said. The investigation is still ongoing.

Dominican authorities did not respond to a request for comment.

When Flynn got his phone back last week, he noticed some things were different about it. For example, all of the settings were now in Spanish. And there were photos of a Latino woman and an infant child whom he did not recognize. Flynn presumes the photos belong to the last person who used his phone in the Dominican Republic.

“I feel sorry for her,” Flynn said. “I assume she didn’t know it was stolen.”

While Flynn waited four months to get his phone back, Absolute Software's investigators have taken as long as three years to recover some stolen laptops, Clapham said.

During that time, customers likely bought a new laptop before their stolen one was recovered. But they still appreciate getting their old one back, he said, partly because it may still contain important data.

“It brings a sense of closure to the customer,” Clapham said.

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