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The curious case of the Atlanta couple ‘stealing’ everyone’s iPhones

Published Jan 22nd, 2016 9:20AM EST
Find iPhone Stolen Lost
Image: Apple Inc.

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Either Michael Saba and Christina Lee have put together a massive operation that goes around the country stealing iPhones and Android phones, or they simply happen to live in some strange Bermuda triangle of lost and stolen smartphones.

Okay, it’s definitely the latter. Saba and Lee are just the victims of bizarre bug that keeps sending angry iPhone and Android owners to their house in their efforts to retrieve a lost device. It might sound funny, but for them it’s definitely not a laughing matter.

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As Fusion reports, it all started the first month Lee and Saba moved in together in Atlanta. iPhone user after iPhone user, with friends, family or police offers acting as wingmen, came to their house telling them the Find My iPhone app directed them there.

For some reason, it has happened more than a dozen of times since February 2015, and the couple is baffled by this strange occurrence. It’s not clear why Apple’s and Google’s smartphone retrieval services send people to that particular address. But it keeps happening.

“I’m sorry you came all this way. This happens a lot,” the couple tells anybody coming looking for an iPhone, but not everyone seems to believe it. They’ve had two visits already in 2016.

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

And things can go bad. In June last year, police came looking for a teenage girl whose parents reported her missing, and police made Lee and Saba sit outside for more than an hour while they decided whether they should obtain a warrant to search the place.

“Your house is a crime scene, and you two are persons of interest,” the officer told them.

Experts and phone companies have yet to figure out what’s happening, and there’s no known link between any of the lost devices. These are iPhones and Android phones operating on different networks.

Security analyst Ken Westin believes it’s a flaw with cell tower triangulation, which is one element used to identify the location of a missing iPhone. Find My iPhone tech looks first at GPS satellite data if there is any available, then at cell towers and at Wi-Fi networks.

Others believe the problem is related to the Wi-Fi mapping technology used to track the phones. iPhone forensic expert Jonathan Zdziarski – who is quite the iPhone expert – also said that Wi-Fi mapping data might be to blame, but he would only be able to offer a definitive answer by looking at the lost phones. Unfortunately that’s not a possibility since their actual locations are unknown.

Apple and Google could not help with the matter, Fusion said, and T-Mobile never answered the couple’s requests – a T-Mobile tower is closest to their home. Furthermore, the FCC told the site this is a problem that doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction.

The couple filed a complaint with the police, but that didn’t help either. They will further submit a complaint with the FCC and with their senator in an effort to fix this problem.

Fusion reports that a similar case happened in Las Vegas, but a Sprint tower was found to be the culprit. The carrier said that a man’s home “happen[ed] to be in the center of a geometric circle denoting the coverage area of one sector of a Sprint cell site,” and that’s why his house came up when people started looking for lost devices.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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