Couple: ‘Find my phone’ giving bad directions

If you’re looking for your lost or stolen cell phone, Christina Lee and Michael Saba want you to know they don’t have it.

The Vine City couple says that since last February roughly 25 people have come to their home — sometimes with police in tow — demanding the pair return their stolen phones.

The problem: The “find my phone” feature that helps owners retrieve their lost or stolen handsets has the wrong address, the couple insists. Despite attempts to correct the error, people keep coming.

The mystery highlights the shortcomings of cell phone accuracy in a world where we can’t — or won’t — live without or iPhones or Android handsets, experts say.

GPS errors have led drivers to turn onto bridges that haven’t been completed and inaccurate cell tower records have led police to knock down doors at the wrong house. Owners of new homes sometimes find their houses don’t exist in the digital world because they haven’t been added to databases.

“Technology is only as good at the data behind it,” said Mark Patterson, a professor of geography at Kennesaw State University and expert on GPS and satellite technology. “Technology can be a double-edged sword.”

And as cell phones handle more and more of our daily activities — from making purchases at fast-food restaurants to mobile banking — the risks that something will go wrong grows.

“The problem is that some people think of technology as infallible, and it isn’t,” said Herb Mattord, an associate professor of information systems at Kennesaw State University.

The consequences can be dire.

False suspicions

A Buffalo, N.Y., man was accused in 2011 of downloading child pornography and underwent days of questioning before investigators determined a neighbor used his wi-fi, which was not password protected.

In 2012, British police broke into a Nottingham home after tracking a stolen iPhone to the location. Neither the phone nor alleged thief were found in the house, leaving the landlord with damages worth more than $700.

And a woman in Portland, Ore., was sent to prison for strangling a prostitute after prosecutors used cell phone data to put her at the scene of the crime. Ten years later evidence showed the cell tower data to be inaccurate and she was cleared.

Cell towers are especially problematic because their primary use is to offer general proximity to connect calls, not to accurately pinpoint a phone’s exact location, said Ellen Zegura, a professor of computer science at Georgia Tech. That leaves a lot of room for error.

Lee and Saba have tried different remedies to solve their problem. They have reset their router to its factory settings, changed the router’s broadcast frequency, updated the encryption and registered their wi-fi with Skyhook — a location service — to improve their geographic accuracy.

Theories abound among experts as to what’s happening. The problem could be a cell tower glitch, inaccurate information in the locator databases or an actual thief living nearby who is “spoofing,” or directing locators to the couple’s home.

Many possibilities

“There are a whole bunch of possibilities [as to why this is happening],” Zegura said. “Why it has narrowed to this particular house, it’s hard to say.”

Lee said the couple has met with police in Atlanta’s Zone 4 to explain what has been happening and talked to T-Mobile, which has the nearest tower to their home. They plan also to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission.

So far, however, no one has been able to solve the issue. And the people keep coming.

“We have had people coming forward to help investigate,” Saba said. “Everyone just kind of shrugged and said ‘This is someone else’s deal.’”

Officially they have had 12 to 14 visits, but several of those who come by are in groups, Lee said.

For instance, almost two weeks ago a group of four young men came to the door frantically looking for a missing friend, whose location they tracked to the couple’s house.

What scares them, Saba said, is opening the door to someone who doesn’t buy their explanation of what’s happening. So far the majority of people who have knocked on their door have been suspicious, but willing to listen.

“I am afraid that someone who is not so reasonable will show up,” Saba said.