In the Cellphone Era, a New Picture of Stupidity Emerges

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 22, 2008

Dumb criminals status update:

Ashlee Hutchens, 18, stopped to reorient herself while driving through an unfamiliar Cincinnati neighborhood this fall. A young man swaggered over. First he tried to hit on her. When Ashlee, who is deaf, didn't respond, he stole her cellphone.

Police said recovery was unlikely, so Ashlee's mom, Christine, took her to buy another Sidekick. A few points and clicks later, and the clever new device imported the old phone's memory. Including a tough-guy self-portrait of . . .

"She said, 'Mom, that's him!' " remembers Christine. "He's even wearing the same shirt!"

The unintentional mug shot made its way onto the local Crime Stoppers broadcast. Soon cops had a suspect in custody.


So. Good. This is just the kind of hand-held comeuppance we expect from a synced society -- and it's happening around the world as personal devices get more and more advanced. The photo trails left by technologically unsavvy crooks are like the online Darwin Awards, like the schadenfreude of "Cops."

The fascination might say more about us than the crooks, but self-reflection is so much less entertaining than vigilantism.

And neither action gets at the oddness of what's happening here: the idea that our gadgets have lives and existences beyond our control, that they haunt us even after they're missing, like phantom limbs that have been amputated but still itch.

* * *

In the olden days of stolen cellphones -- say, three, four years ago -- the best you could do was call yourself. Dial your own number and hope that a good citizen picked up, while you imagined the phone's possible locations. On the street? Under a barstool? Wedged in a Metro seat and bleating out weak rings as the battery . . . slowly . . . died?

Now, a whole number of applications and services have made it possible for you to Follow That Treo, follow it straight to justice.

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