Maryland family helps to catch a thief using cellphone's GPS technology

By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 9:44 PM

At first, all Kari and Derek Fisher knew about the man who broke into their house was that he was careful enough to cut the screen window and neatly fold it so as not to get scratched on the way out. Given the size of the opening, he probably wasn't very big. And he liked to talk.

The couple and their two young children were asleep early Sept. 24 when the burglar crept into their Adelphi home. He found the home office, where he palmed a pair of digital cameras, a video camera, a satellite radio, and two camera bags filled with memory cards and batteries. He swiped Derek Fisher's wallet and cellphone from a desk.

As he worked his way across the first floor, the burglar was quiet enough not to wake Derek, who had fallen asleep in a nearby guest room.

But once outside, the burglar started talking, using the stolen cellphone. His chattiness was his undoing.

After the Fishers awoke several hours later, Kari Fisher spotted the cut and folded screen. It took her a second to absorb what it meant.

That revelation sparked a series of slightly panicked phone calls, first to the Prince George's County police and then to banks and credit card companies to cancel cards. The Fishers also called their cellphone carrier, Sprint Nextel.

When a customer service representative offered to cut off the stolen phone or transfer the number to a new one, Derek Fisher asked out of curiosity whether there was some way for the company to see where the phone was. The customer service rep told him about a locator service he could sign up for on a 15-day free trial. Fisher agreed and signed on.

The Sprint Family Locator service, launched in 2006, relies on GPS technology embedded in the phone. AT&T and Verizon offer similar versions of the service, which is marketed as a way for parents to surreptitiously keep tabs on their kids, or, as the online demo puts it, "to make sure Caroline made it to morning band practice without interrupting the music."

This now-standard piece of helicopter parenting gear also lends itself to off-label uses, such as busting cheating spouses and, it turns out, chasing bad guys.

Family Locator's accuracy depends on several factors, including the phone's proximity to a cellphone tower and the strength of the tower signal. In the burglar's case, it was able to pinpoint where he was within 14 yards.

Kari Fisher called 911. "Oh, my God, we can see the thief! Send the police!" she recalled saying.

The 911 dispatcher didn't share her enthusiasm, and it took a few more calls to reach Detective Daniel Hader, who was handling the case. The Fishers began e-mailing him screen shots of the maps from Family Locator showing the phone's location.

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