Ever since February 2015, Michael Saba and Christina Lee, both in their twenties, have been receiving more than a dozen complaints from people blaming them for having pilfered their smartphones, simply because tracking apps always suggest that the devices have winded up in the couple’s home.
While some have been eventually convinced, albeit reluctantly, that this is all just a technical error, others have been more suspicious and far less easy to persuade, contacting law enforcement in order to sort out the entire dispute.
In fact, in July 2015, Saba and Lee have even been considered persons of interest in a kidnapping case: a female teenager had gone missing, and her cellphone was tracked to the couple’s home.
Police officers treated the conspicuous suburban house as an actual crime scene, and forced the pair to wait outside, while deliberating if they should obtain a search warrant in order to make sure that the young girl wasn’t hidden somewhere inside the building after all.
For now, the two Atlanta residents are at their wits’ end trying to understand why their house is always targeted by so many “Find my Phone” apps, and are even fearing for their safety, in case they ever run into a more violent smartphone owner, who will not accept their explanations as valid or reassuring.
It doesn’t appear like the glitch is related to any carrier in particular, since the two Atlanta residents have been contacted by people who had been using various providers, including Boost Mobile, Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile.
Also, the operating system of the hand-held device doesn’t seem to be the source of the problem, since some of the missing smartphones are iOS-powered iPhones, while others are Android phones.
According to Ken Westin, security market specialist at Splunk, and former CEO and founder of GadgetTrak, the mysterious incident may be caused by faulty cell tower triangulation.
Basically, when a phone goes missing and the user is trying to locate it using a tracker app, the program first tries to access signals being transmitted by the device thanks to GPS satellites.
Afterwards, the software attempts to identify cell towers situated near the area where the smartphone was last used, and finally it refers to WiFi maps developed by companies such as Skyhook.
It also tries to obtain the gadget’s IP address, although geolocation attempts using this information are seldom reliable or precise enough.
It may be that local cell towers have been transmitting inaccurate information, leading people with missing phones to Saba and Lee’s residence.
The pair have investigated this possibility, but with little success: apparently, there are 3 such sites in the area, the nearest being operated by T-Mobile, but representatives of the company haven’t been forthcoming when their help was sought.
Saba has even tried to address the problem treating it as a network mapping issue, suspecting that all the tracker apps rely on inaccurate data, but despite updating information pertaining to his WiFi’s MAC address and location on Skyhook, he and his partner still received angry calls and visits from people claiming their smartphones had been stolen.
The router’s configuration doesn’t seem to be at fault either, since the couple has already reset the device, and altered its wireless channel, but nothing good came of that either.
More recently, the couple have also contacted Apple and Google officials, once again to no avail, and have even reached out to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), whose spokesperson has explained that the issue isn’t within the agency’s scope of action.
So far, it appears that no solution is in sight: the couple has even been advised to move out, but since the house is owned by Lee’s family, that idea doesn’t seem feasible either.
At the moment, the couple is hoping that a formal complaint with the FCC might yield more promising results, and has also been making plans to raise this issue with Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson.
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