Gone in 60 seconds: The saga of my stolen iPhone

Credit: iStockPhoto

Yeah, it can happen to you.

A week ago today, my girlfriend and I were on the 38-Geary, the bus that connects San Francisco's Union Square with my neighborhood in the Inner Richmond. It had been a long day at work, and I was sunk into my seat across from the back-most door, pondering dinner, and randomly flipping through Reddit posts on my Apple iPhone 5.

This is a trip I've taken literally hundreds of times in my two years in the city, and I wasn't paying much attention as the bus pulled up to the stop at at Divisadero. But the kid in the red hoodie -- probably not much older than 13 -- definitely was.

The doors opened.

The kid grabbed my phone out of my hands and vaulted onto the sidewalk. 

I shout at him half-heartedly, processing what was happening a split-second too late to do anything else. 

The kid turned and looked at me, blinked, and ran, getting onto a different bus line going a different direction that -- by accident or design -- had just pulled up around the corner. 

The doors closed.

I was left patting the pocket where my phone usually sits in a state of total disbelief that it was gone.

The other passengers on the bus, to my eternal gratitude, tried to console me and offered advice. Do I have Apple's Find My iPhone tracking service enabled? (Yes.) Do I need to borrow their phone? (No, thank you.) He had a friend waiting for him when he got off the bus. (Good to know.) Would it be a good idea to jot down the ID number of the bus we were on? (Excellent idea.) Did I know that years ago in Australia, the phone carriers successfully curbed theft almost entirely by remotely killing any device reported stolen? (Well, I do now.)

I got back to my apartment, less than twenty minutes after the theft, still more than a little frazzled, and immediately grabbed my laptop. I fired up Apple iCloud and the browser-based Find My iPhone tracker, hoping against hope and my own memory that the screen was safely locked behind my passcode when they grabbed it. No luck. The phone was either off or they had managed to already restore it to factory settings. 

I got halfway through dialing the San Francisco Police Department on my girlfriend's phone before I remembered that I live down the block from a police station. A very helpful officer listened to my story and took notes while another used my Apple ID to check Find My iPhone herself, which didn't turn up anything new. 

Basically, unless the kid turns himself in, or else the surveillance footage contains a CSI-style serendipitous detail that lets the cops find him, the phone is gone forever. On the off chance that it does come back online, I have it set to display Khan's favorite Moby Dick lines from Star Trek II and my phone number, but I'm not holding my breath. Find My iPhone is a great tool, but it's important to remember that it's made to find lost devices. It doesn't take enemy action into account. 

At this point, I remembered an important thing -- I have renters insurance via Allstate, thanks  entirely to the intervention of my extremely wise mother, who convinced me to get it when I moved into my own place. After a short online form and an almost miraculously easy phone conversation with an insurance agent the next morning (facilitated by Google Voice in the absence of my one and only phone), Allstate put a $650 check in the mail to put towards the $850-plus-tax cost of replacing a 32GB iPhone 5 sans contract.  

This was fortunate, because I was stuck trying to decide between using the old iPhone 4 with the busted home button or going the Android route with my Samsung Galaxy Nexus with the finicky charge port. Not having a phone is not an option. I was able to use Facebook and iMessage on my Macbook Air to tell people not to call me, but missing a phone was like missing an appendage and I couldn't quite stop myself from reaching for it every thirty seconds or so. I especially regret not using the opportunity to mess with my friends and blame it on the thief, but it had been a sleepless, stressful night of worry and I wasn't quite myself.

A trip to the AT&T Store later, which entailed convincing the sales agent that I really just wanted the iPhone and damn the slight discount I would get if I signed a new two-year contract on the spot, and I was back in the saddle.

I was very pleased to discover that while my phone's latest backup to iCloud was a day or two old, my computer had made a local backup of the phone just hours before the theft.

The only thing lost were a handful of text messages. My contacts, calendars, mail, preferences, autocorrect settings, and everything else were almost exactly how I left them. And even if I didn't have that, Dropbox's automatic cloud camera backup feature means I would have kept the balance of my photos, which are extremely important to me. It would be a few hours before all my music could transfer over to the new phone, but for all other intents and purposes, I was up and running like nothing had happened. It only took a half hour. 

In the week since, two things have happened. First, my Facebook friends have been signing up for renters insurance in hordes after hearing of my plight and its sort-of tidy resolution. I can't recommend this enough: Not enough people know that most renters insurance policies cover thefts outside your home, too, and Allstate's cooperativeness and strong customer service game were reason enough to recommend them to everybody I know.

Second, riding the bus, especially on that same route, has become an exercise in anxiety. I try really, really hard not to sit or stand near the doors, and when I take my phone out of my pocket to check a message or just out of habit, I cram it back in my pocket quickly and look both ways. Having my Apple-white earpods in is probably not a great idea if I'm trying to keep a low profile, either, but if you've ever ridden the 38 during rush hour, you'll understand why this is a non-negotiable point.

Paranoid much? Maybe. But this theft had an profoundly negative effect on my general sense of well-being and sense of safety in the city -- an effect that borders on embarrassing, given that this whole incident ended up as more of an inconvenience than a catastrophe.

My girlfriend says that if she had just paid attention to how strangely that kid had been looking at me and followed her instinct to change seats, things would have been different, but I don't buy that. I just hope the kid really, really needed whatever he bought with the money he got from robbing me. 

If there's a silver lining to this particular cloud, here it is: With my newfound skittishness at using the phone on the bus, at least the iPhone 5's battery lasts for my entire commute now.

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