MILWAUKEE — More than a million smartphones are stolen in the United States every year and almost all new phones come with software designed to help you find them, but what should you do with that information?
FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn shows you what happened when he went looking for the man who walked off with his phone.
Scroll down for information on how to track your phone if it's lost or stolen
Mobile phone theft is unlike almost any other property crime, because your phone can literally tell you right where it is. But what happens then? If you report your phone's location to police, will they go get it for you? And if not, should you go get it yourself? The answer to that question could be a matter of life and death.
If you left a mobile phone sitting out in a public place, how long would it take before someone else walked away with it? For the FOX6 Investigators, it took about five minutes.
"You pick up a cell phone there?" FOX6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn asked the man he saw walking off with his phone.
"Uh-uh," said the man, indicating he had not.
Ava Gordon was working out at a gymnastics club in Brookfield when her mobile phone disappeared.
"I just didn't know what to do," Gordon said.
Ava used an app called Find My iPhone that relies on GPS technology to pinpoint a phone's location.
"The girls were like, 'go get it Dad,'" Ava's father, Dave Gordon said. "I am not going to go get it."
Ava's phone had made its way to a house in one of the most dangerous parts of Milwaukee. Her younger sister tweeted that Dad refused to go get it "bc he doesn't wanna get shot."
Instead, Dave Gordon called Milwaukee police.
"I'm like, pfft. Case closed. We're gettin' the phone back," Dave Gordon said.
It wasn't quite that easy.
"It's very frustrating. Somebody's stolen your stuff. You have a pretty good idea where it is, and the police won't help you, " said Tim Dees, a former police officer and current blogger for PoliceOne.com. "You can't roll out and do the full court press for every criminal complaint that you get."
Dees says police departments across the country are being inundated with complaints about stolen mobile phones. The federal government estimates between one million and three million phones are stolen in the U.S. every year, and more victims are using tracking technology to find them.
"You could actually lock your phone. You could wipe it," said John Marinho, a cell phone industry spokesman.
Locking and wiping the data from your phone renders it virtually useless for a thief, Marinho says, but many victims are tempted to chase after their phones instead.
"I didn't want to wipe it completely until I knew for sure if I was going to get it back," Ava Gordon said.
To show you how easy that is, the FOX6 Investigators left a phone unattended, in public, on purpose.
Within minutes, a passerby grabbed it and walked right out the door. He headed across the parking lot, and disappeared from view. Then, the FOX6 Investigators asked Google to find our Android phone. We followed the movements on Google Maps, which led us right to a county bus, stopped near 76th and Barnard.
As we followed the bus north on 76th, the GPS pings matched the bus' movement. At 2:27 p.m., the phone pinged near 60th and Forest Home, right where we saw the bus. At 2:39 p.m., it pinged at 27th and Forest Home. At 2:52, it was at 16th and Pierce. And that's where we saw the man who took our phone getting off the bus.
The FOX6 Investigators parked the car and approached him on foot.
"Pardon me, sir. Do you have a moment?" Bryan Polcyn said.
At first, he denied that he took the phone.
"You pick up a cell phone there?" Polcyn said.
"Uh-uh," the man said.
Then, Bryan Polcyn explained how we tracked him down.
Bryan Polcyn / FOX6 Investigators: "If you could just give me the phone..."'
Man: "I just turned it into dude. Is there a reward for the phone?"
Polcyn: "What's that?"
Man: "Reward for the phone?"
Polcyn: "The reward is I won't call the police. How about that?"
Man: "I didn't steal it. Somebody else picked it up."
Polcyn: "I didn't say you stole it. I am just asking if I can have the phone back."
Man: "I didn't steal it. You can call the police if you want to. I didn't steal your phone."
He then appeared to toss the phone in a dumpster. Actually, it was a fake out. As we searched the dumpster, the phone kept moving. The last ping came from the nearby casino and the signal went dark.
Marinho suggests you not do what the FOX6 Investigators did.
"Don't try to track the phone. Report it to police and let them intercede on your behalf," Marinho said.
Of course, that assumes police are willing to intercede.
Earlier this year, Bryan Polcyn's own phone was stolen from a Milwaukee nightclub. He tracked it to a neighborhood on the city's south side. A funny thing happened when he called police to report it stolen. The person who took the complaint suggested he should go knock on some doors himself.
That same day, a man in Alabama tracked his stolen phone, confronted the thief and was shot to death.
"Certainly, there's a safety concern," Dees said. "My advice to law enforcement agencies is to get out in front of this."
Dees says every police department needs to have a clear cut policy for tracking and recovering stolen phones, but many still don't.
FOX6 News asked six local agencies for their policies. Three told us they don't have one and two never responded.
"If the department doesn't have a policy on it, then they have to make it up as they go along," Dees said.
Turns out, Milwaukee police do have a policy that says they will attempt to recover a stolen phone with a known GPS location, but they won't respond at all for lost phones.
Curiously, Bryan Polcyn's phone was officially recorded as "lost" even though the report shows that he tracked it to 4th and Orchard -- a neighborhood he'd never been in.
"That's going to be a judgment call on the part of the person taking the report," Dees said.
Dave Gordon wasn't about to chase after a stolen phone himself.
"I am not a police officer. That's not my, not my wheelhouse," he said.
Milwaukee police wouldn't help, because the phone was stolen in Brookfield. So Gordon called Brookfield police. They sent a squad into Milwaukee and recovered Ava's phone.
"I was really happy because I didn't really think I would get it back," Ava Gordon said.
Make no mistake, Dave Gordon would lay his life on the line to protect his daughter, but he's not willing to risk that much for her iPhone.
"It's just too dangerous," he said.
Milwaukee police declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview, but a spokesman said the person who advised Bryan Polcyn to "go knock on some doors" was not a police officer. He was a police aide, assigned to take reports over the phone.
The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) has information on how to track your phone if it's lost or stolen, depending on the operating system: