Whoever made off with Julie Stoner’s smartphone may have made a not-so-smart maneuver—taking photos that ended up on Stoner’s computer.
The story of those photos adds a twist to a recent phenomenon dubbed “Apple-picking”: a sharp rise in the theft of smartphones. In both New York and New Haven, for instance, homicides plunged in 2012 but robberies shot up, with officials placing at least part of the blame on simple smartphone grabs—like the theft from Stoner.
With the help of an app that sends photos from her phone to her computer, Stoner now has pictures of the people who may have stolen her phone and the police are on the trail.
Stoner owns a Samsung Galaxy S2 smartphone. She had it with her when she went to Toad’s Place on Dec. 23.
Stoner, who’s 48 and lives in Torrington, was there with her husband and baby daughter Lindy to set up a Christmas party organized by City Church, to which she belongs.
Lindy needed a diaper change. Stoner figured only fellow church members she knew were in the club at the time, so she felt comfortable leaving her phone next to her Diet Coke as she took Lindy downstairs to the women’s bathroom. When she returned upstairs, only the Diet Coke was there.
Stoner figured someone had moved it elsewhere during the preparations for the party. “As far as I knew it was still just church people there,” she said. “It was all people I know and people I trust.” She asked around; no one had seen it.
That night she went home phoneless, but not convinced that someone had stolen her Samsung Galaxy. She decided to keep the service running—she would still have to pay for it under the contract, after all. Maybe someone would find it.
She called AT&T and asked to activate its “FamilyMap” software (usually used by parents to track teens). It didn’t turn up anything.
In subsequent days, calls started showing up on her account. Someone had her phone and was using it.
She called her phone from relatives’ phones. No response. She texted pleas: I just want the phone back. Please return it, no questions asked. Stoner didn’t feel she could afford buying a new phone; she was under contract for that phone for another year.
Days later she received a message—an unintended message.
Stoner had an app on her phone for Dropbox, an online document and photo storage system with accounts users can access through the internet. Photos taken by her Samsung Galaxy automatically get downloaded into Dropbox. Whoever had her phone now was taking photos. As many as 50. They were going straight to Stoner’s Dropbox account.
Stoner took a look and said she “vaguely” recognized the young woman in most of the photos, some of which are in posted in this story.
Now hot on the investigative trail, Stoner shared the photos with her church friends who’d been at Toad’s on Dec. 23. A half-dozen of them reported they distinctly recognized both the young woman and a male companion in many of the photos. The friends said they’d seen the pair enter the club during the set-up time. No one had known them. The pair chatted up folks and eventually left, her friends said.
At that point “I kind of upped the ante on the texts” she was sending to her missing phone, Stoner said. Still no response.
On New Year’s Eve Stoner figured the phone-bearers might be back in the clubs. She turned to FamilyMap again. This time she got a hit: the phone was turned on and somewhere on York Street. More photos showed up in Dropbox from New Year’s Eve.
“You know, I tried. I really really didn’t want to go the route of the police. To me having an arrest—having a record over something relatively minor, relatively simple—didn’t make sense. I was trying to give them the opportunity to do the right thing,” Stoner said.
“I finally got fed up. I can’t afford to pay for a new phone. I’m not eligible for an upgrade for another year.”
Stoner contacted top downtown cop Lt. Rebecca Sweeney, who assigned the case . On one of her twice-weekly trips to New Haven to work at the church office on Dayton Street, Stoner met with the police to hand over the photos and records of phone numbers dialed on the phone, including one number from Puerto Rico. She kept checking Family Maps: She got more hits, this time from 56 and 66 Norton St. and from Mead Street in the West River neighborhood.
The police, meanwhile, have posted some of the photos at the downtown substation in City Hall. Officer Dan Hartnett, who’s working the case, asked anyone with information to leave a message for him at 203-946-6316.
Sweeney and Hartnett said smartphone grabs have kept the downtown cops plenty busy. They’re employing all the technological tools they can for assistance. In one recent case, someone swiped a smartphone from a disabled man sitting in a car downtown around 9:30 p.m. Officer-in-Training Michael Fumiatti stopped nearby at Koffee? After Dark on Audubon and asked to borrow an iPhone. Fumiatti accessed an app similar to Locate My Phone and Find My iPhone and entered the number of the stolen phone. The stolen phone’s location popped up. Police were able to track it eventually to College Street and MLK Boulevard, where Officer Jose Luna arrested the thief and recovered the phone.
Many of the phones are stolen from autos, Hartnett said; he advises people not to leave the phones (or other valuable items) in clear sight. Hartnett also advised pedestrians not to have headphones on while they walk downtown, especially when they have their phones out, so they can stay alert.