NBC Dateline hidden camera investigation tracks Apple iPod thieves

“Frustrated iPod owners are angry, their music taken from them by thieves [that] Dateline caught on hidden camera,” Chris Hansen reports for NBC News.

“Dateline investigates if it’s possible, using some of the same high-tech capabilities that make the iPod the phenomenon it is, to track down people who take iPods that don’t belong to them,” Hansen reports.

“The iPod — it’s everywhere. Originally billed as ‘a thousand songs in your pocket,’ it can now hold up to 20,000 songs, 100 hours of video, 25,000 photos–and with a staggering 110 million sold, the device has become an international icon and in an indispensable part of life,” Hansen reports. “But… if you’ve got to have it, so do thieves.”

“We bought dozens of iPods. These were iPods that we’d use as bait to be stolen — or deliberately lost,” Hansen reports “We hired a software company, Blackfin Tech, to help us. Jefferson Jewell runs Blackfin. His solution? To simply demonstrate whether an iPod has the capability of being tracked, we’d create our own database — just like Apple has.”

“We’d try to get basic information from whoever plugged it in, in this case from people the iPods didn’t belong to,” Hansen reports. How would we get the information? Instead of putting used iPods out as bait, we’d use new ones that were brand new in the box. To a thief, they’d be exactly like the real thing.”

“Except for this: with a new iPod, the first thing you normally do is download Apple iTunes software, which allows you to buy and download music as well as provide basic information about the user to Apple,” Hansen reports.

“To get our bait iPods to work, whoever takes them will have to install a disc. What they won’t know is that when they click ‘I Agree’ on a licensing agreement that appears on-screen, they’ll be consenting to provide some of the same kind of information they provide Apple to Dateline,” Hansen reports.

Find out what happened in the full text article here or watch the video report here.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “David” for the heads up.]
Should Apple track down missing iPods for free? Can they even do so for manpower and/or legal reasons? Perhaps, as Newsweek’s Steve Levy suggests in the full piece, Apple could offer such tracking as part of a paid service like AppleCare. In any case, it seems that Apple’s already working on a solution.

In the full article, Hansen also reports that “although Apple declined requests for interviews and comment regarding this report, the company — which consistently ranks at or near the top in customer satisfaction surveys in the tech world — might well turn out to be the hero in our story after all.”

“Why? Just recently came word from the U.S. Patent Office that Apple has applied for a new patent. In its application, Apple confirms that there is a ‘serious problem’ with iPod theft and that iPod owners have been seriously injured or even murdered for their iPods. And the company has proposed an ingenious solution to the problem: essentially, you can’t recharge the iPod or the new iPhone if you can’t prove the device is yours when you hook it up to iTunes,” Hansen reports.


  1. As mentioned if any company does anything to flag stolen ipods it will be Apple. Sure the company does not engage itself to track down the missing or stolen ipods due to legal issues. The dateline NBC segment was very informative. It just proves that the customer expectation bar has been set so high by Apple that the customers do expect that the company help them re-unite with their missing or stolen ipods. Which other company can you expect so much from? Maybe there are some. But I believe Apple will revolutionize the end user experience to find a lost or stolen ipod. I am so sure that the technology is there. It is very flattering for a company to have a customer base that can trust a manufacturer so much because eventually their voices, concerns and feedbacks are heard and answered in a proactive manner even though its in a silent way.

  2. A friend’s wife left her wedding ring on a sink at the local “Y” and, of course, it wasn’t there when she returned. Now, why won’t Zales help her locate it?

    A business associate had his Camry stolen recently on a trip to Tucson, AZ. Why won’t Toyota help him recover it?

    My sister lost her virginity about 20 years ago. Who’s going to get THAT back for her?

  3. The NBC segment portrayed Apple as unwilling to help it’s loyal customers in return.

    How hard can it be to look up a serial number and match it with a new address?

    Apple should do something about it pronto instead of being concerned about losing sales to those loyal customers that are forced to repurchase new ipods to replace their stolen ones only because Apple won’t help just a little.

    The only reason they are now indirectly addressing the issue with a patent is because the public is now aware that Apple denies help to those in need when it would be little effort on their part.
    It is the right thing to do.

    Thank you NBC for shedding light on Apple’s allegiance.

    I don’t want patents, I want action!

  4. This hits close to home

    we have lived in Mexico for 12 years (and love it)

    Our 1st taste of crime was last week, when our 30gb was stolen from our car, in our drive way. in a gated community

    (now I have more reason for an iPhone)

  5. If that’s your first taste of crime in Mexico, you must stay in doors all day, every single day. I lived in Mexico for one year. I was robbed 5 times, had my car SEIZED by the police with no indication as to why, and NEVER got it back. The entire government from top to bottom is the most corrupt I’ve ever experienced and that includes THE FORMER SOVIET UNION!

  6. Oh yeah, this is so very real because most stolen ipods are just left on a bench or in a street. I would suspect more are stolen by carelessness or pickpockets. I mean really……let’s say instead of finding an ipod on the sidewalk you find an ice crisp $100 bill. Are you seriously gonna go looking for the owner of that $100 bill? Most people would call that a lucky day.

  7. Dateline did a superb job in their investigation. Even after Apple declined to help in the investigation, Dateline did their homework and raised some good questions. They criticized Apple where they deserved it, and even dug up some reasons (with no help from Apple) to give them praise.
    I can understand Apple’s desire to not get bogged down in legal headaches, to NOT spend ANY time in court regarding responsibility or “who really owns an iPod” legal hassle.
    But Apple does need to come up with a solution to help their customers. After all, they made Apple the success they are today.

    Oh, and I think they should hang iPod thefts by their ears.

  8. Another question, will Apple be as helpful (or not helpful) if your Mac laptop gets stolen? Will they record a laptop serial number as stolen, or if stolen laptop is turned in for repair, will Apple repair it and return it to the thief?
    I’m asking because I don’t know the answer.

    BTW 2 – I had my kids sit down and watch the Dateline show to show them just how easily their iPods can be stolen.

    To the “theloniousMac,”
    I wish.

  9. 1. The iPods offered up for theft had been modified to send registration info to the security company featured in the story. So NBC new that every one of those “registrations” was for a stolen iPod. How is Apple supposed to know when a new, previously unregistered, iPod is stolen property?
    2. Even with this info NBC was able to track little more than half of the iPods stolen.
    3. One chick who “stole” an iPod actually picked up a bag left on top of what looked to me as a trash receptacle on the street.
    4. Ditto the a new iPod in box laying on an empty Mall bench. These last two seem a little much like entrapment. Yeah, maybe the Mall guy should gone to the Mall lost and found, but frankly, I wouldn’t even know where the L&F department (if there is one) is in the local mall I’ve gone to for the past 20 years.
    5. Some of the other techniques for retrieving stolen gadgets (like Lo Jack for laptops) which they implied Apple should do are 3rd party commercial products that people pay for. Not exactly fair.
    6. The guy with the Lost iPod web site came off as a real weeny.

    I still think it was an interesting show, even if flawed. Also, if you have the original packaging and serial number it would be nice if you could report this to Apple to go on a watch list. They could conceivably alert authorities if someone tries to set up a new iTunes account that uses an iPod on the list. Something like that could be at least semi-automated. None the less, the NBC iPods were all set up for theft while in their original packaging, so Apple would have no way of knowing they were stolen when registered, and the victim would not have any serial numbers to report. In the mean time I don’t ever let my iPod out of my site except at home, so until I’m burgled or held up my iPod should be safe

  10. You missed the part where Dateline stated that most stolen iPods have already been registered by previous owners. Dateline used new iPods so they could complete their investigation using their tracking software.

  11. “A friend’s wife left her wedding ring on a sink at the local “Y” and, of course, it wasn’t there when she returned. Now, why won’t Zales help her locate it?”

    Well if Zales got a serialized diamond back, you would expect that they would help.

    “Why won’t Toyota help him recover it?”

    If somebody brought it in to a Toyota dealer for service, you’d hope they would. if it had an onstar type system and the new “owner” signed up for sevice, you’d doubly hope they would help.

  12. The story makes quite a lot of assumptions, including it’s portrayal of thieves targeting the iPod. Personally, my thought is if you’ve lost your iPod, it wasn’t stolen. It was lost. That’s not to say that its morally wrong for someone to just pick it up and keep it, I just feel its very different than say the kids in Berkeley who took the iPods out of cars. That’s theft, and iPod sitting on a random bench with no obvious owner is a lost.

    Additionally, they assume that everyone who uses an iPod will (1) need to install a new copy of iTunes; (2) will eventually want to purchase something thru iTunes; and (3) that original owners will have maintained the serial number of their iPods.

    So many people own or have previously owned an iPod that I’d state there’s probably a notable percentage of users who never run a software install disk from Apple. Myself included. I own five iPods, and have purchased others as gifts and such. I’ve never bothered with the iPod CD.

    Quite a few of the people I’ve purchased iPods for have never purchased anything through Apple. I don’t know why, I find iTunes Store essential. But these individuals (friends) just convert their music and never even browse the store. A few have gotten to it years later.

    Now here’s the most assumptive piece of information is that (a) most people keep track of the serial number of their device, and (b) that Apple could assist you because of that. I think I’m better than average at keeping up with serial numbers, and I only maintain serial numbers for 2 or 3 of my iPods. The ones that are 40GB or higher, and my original iPod nano. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I have a second iPod nano that I use more frequently, and other devices that are not even registered.

    I see the serial number when I plug the device into my computer, and that’s it. I could and should store all the serial numbers, but I just don’t.

    Additionally, there is the assumption that Apple could locate unregistered iPods by scanning the user’s computer for other identifying information—HELLO massive privacy violations. And while people might let Dateline NBC get away with those violations, I trust Apple would be raked over the coals for them.

    I love Apple, but I’d be far more hesitant to purchase Apple products if they were participating in actively tracking the device. That type of re-purposing of private data is just a slippery slope. That said, if someone other than Apple created a service, and people wanted to separately register for it, than that could be of benefit to those who more willingly give up their privacy for security (which is unfortunately a vast number of Americans).

  13. “How is Apple supposed to know when a new, previously unregistered, iPod is stolen property?”

    Add a “report iPod as stolen” menu item to iTunes.

    “2. Even with this info NBC was able to track little more than half of the iPods stolen.”

    Better than none, if it were common knowledge that Apple was tracking iPods, that would severely curtail the market for stolen ones.

    “4. Ditto the a new iPod in box laying on an empty Mall bench. “

    Sure, you see an iPod on a park bench, to you think to yourself, “Somebody forgot their brand new iPod, it’s an expensive item, probably the owner will be back, I’ll just leave it there, or take it to the local cops”, or “Cool, a free iPod, I’ll take it”

    “These last two seem a little much like entrapment.”

    That only applies to much more active enticement to commit a crime, not to just leaving a piece of properly lying around. Clearly these people were predisposed to stealing things

    “I wouldn’t even know where the L&F department (if there is one)”

    So give it to a security guard, how hard is that? Sounds like you’re trying to justify why you’d steal an iPod.

    “Not exactly fair.”

    Well Apple could do it so easily with very little overhead.

    “They could conceivably alert authorities if someone tries to set up a new iTunes account that uses an iPod on the list. Something like that could be at least semi-automated.”

    Or almost completely automated, at least the reporting of the loss and the detecting of the re-use of a stolen iPod, and the disabling of that iPod.

    “None the less, the NBC iPods were all set up for theft while in their original packaging,”

    They only needed to do this because they couldn’t access Apple’s database. if they could have, they could have used old iPods.

    “So Apple would have no way of knowing they were stolen when registered, and the victim would not have any serial numbers to report.”

    Except iTunes knows this, so automating that piece is trivial.

    “burgled or held up my iPod should be safe””

    And in that case, you’d really like it if Apple could help track the perp.

    In all reality the best value of a tracking system is to destroy the market for stolen iPods which would stop the crime happening in the first place.

  14. Sorry for the dual post, but I’ve just been thinking about this even more, and thinking what would need to happen for Apple to track the device. Technically speaking, Apple would need to be scanning every computer that plugs in a device or always sending data back to Apple every time your iPod is plugged into your computer.

    Let’s not forget, the Dateline segment proved that a “known” stolen device could be track if the ‘thief’ registered the product after the fact. Now, I may register a brand new product when prompted, but why would I register a used product, regardless if I planned to use the iTunes Store or not.

    So even though the device has the serial number and probably the original owners name embedded in the software; I’m not providing Apple any of that information when I go to purchase an iTunes track or just plug my iPod into my computer.

    For Apple to get that information, the device would NOT only have to be registered as stolen (maybe to the local police to prevent tons of false claims), but once Apple has/had a flag on a stolen device, it would have to actively scan for where that device is or the device would need to call home. Either method, I’m opposed to. My trust in Apple, is that they will never actively be in my machine without my permission; and that besides from purchasing history or tracking clicks on their website or at the iTS that they will not track or collect information on my usage patterns without my explicit permission, each time.

    I don’t want Apple to know if I plug my iPod in once a month or every day. I don’t want them to know that I’m looking at the new Kelly Clarkson, even if I’m purchasing the latest Interpol. I don’t care that they know that someone click on both those items, I just don’t want my name associated with it. Now, I do want them to be able to tell me if I already purchased a song or album, so I’m willing to give up some privacy for purchasing history.

    But this article and the individuals in it, act as if every time you plug-in your iPod information is being transmitted to Apple. It also assumes that what could be possible at registration time, is possible all the time. Yes, I’ll transmit information to Apple at registration, but how many devices lost in their original packaging do people have logged serial numbers for—unless they’ve purchased and registered AppleCare for the device at the store, instead of at home.

    This article just irks me. Not to mention, my original point was also proven only 12 out of 20 people registered their iPod, and these were brand new devices. And a number of them registered the device because they believed the item to be a legal gift. Let’s forget the stupid teens and college girl who knowingly registered a stolen device—idiots.And of course you notice that no one read the terms of service. Because, I’d be hesitant to agree to provide data to Dateline NBC when registering my newly stolen iPod.

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