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GPS Trackers Are Turning SF Petty Crime Victims Into Vigilantes


GPS Trackers Are Turning SF Petty Crime Victims Into Vigilantes

The prevalence of GPS-tracking devices on cars, in cellphones, and attached to various objects including car keys and wallets, means that victims of petty crime don’t have to rely on the police to find out where a thief has gone off to with their belongings. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.

A couple of factors have come together to create many potentially hazardous situations for San Franciscans (and residents of other gadget-happy cities where there’s petty crime). First, there’s the well established apathy of the police toward petty crime and their contention that these criminals don’t get properly punished anymore so why bother arresting them; then you have San Francisco’s prevalence of such crimes of late, and the poverty and addictions that often motivate them; and third, there’s the fairly recent, widespread prevalence GPS tracking technology on everything, thanks to inexpensive Apple AirTags, cellphones, more smart cars, etc.

Chronicle crime reporter Megan Cassidy recently became a crime victim herself, as she writes in an investigative piece today, when she fumbled and dropped her car key after parking her Suburu under the overpass by the Hall of Justice in SoMa one day in May when she was rushing to get to a court hearing she was reporting on. The car had an expensive stroller visible inside, and maybe a few other things, but the thief apparently spotted the key on the ground and decided to take an opportunistic joyride before taking what they could from inside.

Cassidy’s partner, Miguel, got the first alerts on his cellphone in Oakland that the car was on the move, and someone had used the key instead of the fob to get inside. Cassidy describes the panicked text exchange, as well as her shame-spiral and the harrowing ordeal of trying to enlist help from the police after they located the vehicle a few blocks from where she’d first left it.

Her story ends pretty well — the police arrived, the car was abandoned, and just the stroller and a car charger were stolen, along with some loose change. Some light damage was done to a bumper, but that was pretty much it. The AirTag on Cassidy’s key fob was still pinging in the area, but they didn’t see it anywhere — and of course no arrests were made. They towed the car and ultimately located the key hanging from a tree branch the next day.

But Cassidy found a series of other cases where crime victims’ interactions with suspected thieves, after tracking them via these devices, were a whole lot more fraught. In one case, a guy tracked his stolen bike to an encampment on Division Street, and when police said they couldn’t respond until the next day, he tells the Chronicle, “So I went out with a baseball bat. Found it and trashed the guy’s tent.”

In other cases, police were fairly quickly and helpful, though they couldn’t arrest two people found living in one couple’s stolen car because they claimed they didn’t know who stole it and there was no evidence it was them. And they couldn’t enter a motel room on Lombard Street where one guy had tracked his luggage stolen from SFO because they needed a warrant, and the likely thief inside knew that.

Quick moral of the story: Don’t confront suspects yourself if something of yours is stolen and you know where it is! They could be armed and in desperate straights and your phone/wallet/whatever are not worth your life.

But! You can help police do their job, if you have trackers and get them to come out quickly, and you just might get your stuff back if it doesn’t require going into a building. And as Cassidy notes, maybe if this happens more often the thieves will stop thieving so much because everything is being tracked? Not sure about that.

Photo: Unsplash

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