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Friday, July 19, 2013

Following Public Dots to a Missing Phone

In retrospect, I should have checked the cab seat when I got out. I should have taken the receipt. And maybe I should have had more empathy for those people, like my daughters, who have lost their smartphones.

Because there I was, at 1 a.m. on a recent night, just back from the airport with a sinking feeling that I’d left my iPhone in the taxi.

No immediate solution appeared, so after a fitful few hours of sleep, I began my quest to find my phone. Along the way, I was reminded, in this time of debate about how much personal information the government secretly keeps about us, just how much information is already publicly available.

My hunt started with a trip to the Apple store to get into my iCloud account (I didn’t know my password) and use the Find My iPhone service that I had turned on for my iPhone. I learned just how critical it is to have the program activated, although there were still several caveats.

Because of that feature, locating the phone was the easy step. The trick was getting it back.

The tracker showed the phone at a house at the entrance to a cul-de-sac a little east of Queens in Nassau County. But I didn’t have the house number. The police there told me they could assist me if I showed up at the location, but that they wouldn’t go to the house on their own. I needed to talk to someone in that house.

I initially didn’t have much luck searching online for a free reverse directory, and a librarian at a nearby branch would not give out resident information if they could find it in their reverse directories. But Zillow.com, the real estate site, let me identify the house number, which gave me enough information to look up county records. Those told a lot about the property â€" Colonial, two-family home, built in 1962, 2,150 square feet, last sold in 2004 for $430,00 â€" but had no owner information. A call to the assessor’s office turned up the homeowner’s name, and the white pages provided the phone number. It went to a generic voicemail.

While I waited for a call back, I searched the Open Data service on NYC.gov for a taxi driver with the resident’s name. One seemed to show up, though the first name started with a different letter. That gave me a taxi license for that driver, though not the coveted medallion number.

To triangulate, I turned to the Taxi and Limousine Commission. I wasn’t expecting much here, since when I called the night before I heard the after-hours recording, which made it clear that the commission has lots of drivers and lots of lost property reports, and that you have to fill out a form online. I got through to a helpful employee who was soon digging into the case. She took the license number and within a couple minutes had the driver on the line. But the person she had on the phone was not the right one â€" it was a woman, not a man. So the records showing a slightly different first name were indeed accurate.

But there was another option: because I paid with a credit card, the staffer told me, the medallion number of the driver would show up in that transaction. But it hadn’t yet been fully processed and there was no medallion number, according to my online statement and my credit union. But we did have the amount, $36.43, and the pick up and drop-off locations, so the staffer was going to see what she could do.

In the meantime, I called the house again and a man picked up. Though he wasn’t my driver, he said a taxi driver did live there and he gave me a cellphone number.

When I called that number, a man picked up and he said he had my phone. I got his name and medallion number and called the clerk at the taxi commission. She, too, had come up with a medallion number. They matched.

Less than 24 hours since his cab drove off with my phone on the back seat, the driver was outside our apartment again.

It is said that the chances of getting a phone back are not so good after someone hops into the cab you exited. As a tractor-trailer honked behind the cabby and I gave him $30 bucks for the effort and he handed me the phone, he told me we had been his last passengers after that airport run.

So in the end, it helped to have a little bit of luck, and a lot of data, on my side.