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Photo by Kris Koeller - National Geographic

May 11, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Find my iPhone Helps Find my iPhone: A NYC Taxi Adventure

Geekdom, New York City

Every time I get out of a taxi, I have at least two things in my hand: my wallet, because I just paid, and my phone, because what else is there to do while riding in a taxi. Despite having these things in my hand, and despite knowing they're in my hand, I always get a twinge of panic because for just a moment I sense that my phone isn't in my right front pocket and my wallet isn't in my right back pocket. The reason? They're in my hand. Except for Tuesday night.

Late Tuesday night we were coming back from Nina & Harry's wedding, and took a taxi from Battery Park to Chelsea. I was wearing my new suit, which I like perfectly fine except the pockets are a bit shallow. Its because of these shallow pockets that me and my iPhone became separated.

Nice suit, lousy pockets.

I first realized the phone was missing when we got to our building lobby, so I used Jessica's phone to first call the wedding venue to ask if they had found the phone. Since they had not, I feared the phone was in the taxi, which by now was somewhere roaming the city. I called the phone in the off-chance someone would answer. The phone rang through to voicemail so either it had been found and pocketed, or was still bouncing around in the back of the taxi.

Next I pulled up the "Find my iPhone" app on Jessica's phone and put in my login information. "Find my iPhone" is a free service Apple offers to owners of its iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Hapless device owners can use the service to track down a missing device. The service sends a signal to the missing device which responds with the GPS coordinates of its location which is then displayed on a handy map. While tracking a device, you can tell it to make a sound, even if its in silent mode, to display a message, to lock the phone requiring a password or remotely erase all your content and settings from the device - the nuclear option.

After a few seconds, I could see my phone was now on 57th and 10th avenue. You have to manually refresh the map but after doing so I could infer the phone was headed north, away from my 26th street location. I didn't have the cab or medallion number, so I couldn't call the taxi dispatch to connect to the driver. Although I used a credit card to pay for the cab, I would have to wait until the next day when someone in accounting could track it down the taxi number by my credit card.

Lesson number one: The driver will always offer you a receipt. Take the receipt - it has the car number on it.

I handed Jessica the apartment keys, took her phone and hailed a taxi headed toward my phone's last known location. Looking back, I'm surprised I did this. Perhaps all the champagne from the many wonderful wedding toasts allowed me to see past the fact that this was an improbable endeavor. There are 13,000 taxis in New York City, and by law they mostly look the same. The odds of finding the exact taxi without knowing its number, with the phone still inside, with a reputable and honest driver after midnight somewhere between Chelsea and the Upper West Side...well, like I said, improbable.

I refreshed the map and now saw the phone was on 78th and Riverside drive, but appeared to be headed back south. I decided to lock my phone so its data would be inaccessible. At some point I would have to decide to remotely wipe the phone, which removes all of my personal data, but also makes the phone untraceable once wiped.

I crossed Columbus Circle, and now the app showed my phone to be on Broadway and 72nd headed south. I was on Broadway and 66th facing north. I got out of the cab and stood on 66th street looking up Broadway. Headed my way were about 15 taxis, all slowing down as I appeared to be needing a cab. The trouble is, I needed a specific cab. By now the app showed my phone at 68th and Broadway, two blocks away.

The taxi containing my phone had to be among those I could see before me. The only thing I recalled about the taxi I was in was that it wasn't the typical Ford Crown Victoria, but a small Nissan. Out of the pack of approaching taxis, I spotted a Nissan that I thought might be the one. I ran into the street past other taxis flagged down that specific cab much to the chagrin of the other drivers. (Its considered poor taxi etiquette to not take the first available taxi).

I opened the front door, which startled the driver, and asked if he recently dropped someone off on 26th street. He looked puzzled, but then asked me, "Did you lose a phone? I tried to answer it but it was locked." He then thought for a moment, then asked how he could be sure the phone was mine. I told him the lock screen had a picture of me, which it did, and me and iPhone were happily reunited.

That's a lot to do for a phone, but replacing an iPhone without the carrier subsidy is about $600 and I couldn't stand the idea of someone pocketing that kind of money on the gray market. I took his taxi back to 26th street. I tried to give him a $20 tip, but the machine wouldn't allow it so I tipped him 30% of the fare and thanked him for his help.

The driver told me he picked up another passenger on 32nd and 6th avenue, and that passenger found the phone and gave it to the driver. So to the anonymous good samaritan of Korea Town, thank you.

Lesson number two: if you have an iPhone (or an iPad), be sure to enable the Find my iPhone feature, and know how to use it. Next time I wear that suit, I'll carry my phone in my jacket pocket.

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