Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : June 2008

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 TECHNOLOGY TALK:

BY JOHN ANDERSON  

Portable Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are among the fastest-selling car accessories today. In my last article, I wrote about all the wonderful things you can do with a GPS. GPS devices are amazingly popular, and car owners love them – but thieves really like them, too. I know, mine was just stolen.

They’re small, they are popular and they’re expensive, falling somewhere between $180 and $1,000. To thieves, they scream “quick cash.” Mountable GPS systems are especially risky, because they’re easy to spot.

GPS devices are now the number one item being stolen from motor vehicles; if you want to make your car an inviting target for a smash-and-grab thief, just park it with a GPS unit in plain sight. “Oh, but I’m smarter than that,” you say to yourself. “I hide mine under the seat.” But here’s the truth: crooks know where to look and what to look for. Suction-cup windshield mounts usually mean a valuable GPS hidden somewhere in the car. “Well, I’m okay because I take off my mounting bracket.” Well, even taking the mounting bracket off the windshield still leaves the round suction cup rings behind. You also have to ask yourself what else might they grab even if they don’t get your GPS? And even if they don’t grab anything, in most cases you’re still out $250 for a new window.

The unit may not even be in the vehicle, but if there’s a sign that a GPS unit was being used in the vehicle, crooks will break in looking for it. Police say the thieves get lucky when we get careless.

The rate that GPS devices are being stolen is escalating enormously, with some thieves searching specifically for these devices. They are not only being taken from the cars of everyday people, but the drivers of emergency and law enforcement vehicles as well.

GPS units are relatively untraceable. While they can tell where you are by listening to GPS satellite transmissions, they do not talk back. Since all they do is listen, without sending out any kind of signal, there is no way to track them – well, most of the time, but more on that later.

In the meantime, here are a few tips that can help keep your GPS in your possession:

  • Hide it. I’m not talking about the GPS unit. I mean all the little doodads that go along with it, like the power cord and especially the mounting bracket. If you have to leave your GPS in your car, lock it up – either in your trunk or glove box – though it is always better to take the GPS with you when you leave your car.
  • Clean it. If you use a windshield mounting bracket you should know that the suction cup will leave big rings on the windshield when you take them off. Those rings are a big telltale bull’s-eye for GPS thieves. Even if you hide your device, you run the risk of becoming a target unless you remove the telltale marks from your window. Pack a few wet towelettes to wipe down your windshield.
     
    To avoid the GPS bull’s-eye altogether, use a dashboard mount to keep it out of direct sight. It doesn’t need to see the road to operate, just the sky.
  • Take it. Always, always take it with you. Never leave your GPS unit behind. Buy the case to keep it from getting scratched and then put in your jacket, purse or briefcase when you leave the car. A small investment in time and money will protect you from buying a replacement.
  • Record it. Write down the serial number and model number and keep it in a safe place. If the police recover your stolen unit you’ll need proof that you’re the owner.
  • Register it. It is also a good idea to register the product with the manufacturer. I am usually against registering products for fear of a flood of junk mail, but in this case it is very useful. If your device is stolen you can report it to the manufacturer, and if anyone tries to register or service the device they will attempt to recover it for you.
  • Secure it. GPS manufacturers are also helping users protect their units. Newer Garmin units are pre-loaded with a feature called Garmin Lock™. This is Garmin’s anti-theft feature which disables the unit from functioning until a four-digit PIN is entered or the unit is taken to a pre-set secure location. Each time you turn on the GPS, you enter your PIN to unlock the GPS. The PIN cannot be overridden by resetting the unit. If you forget your PIN, you can go to your pre-set location to unlock the device. Use it.
  • Get it back. While you normally can’t track your GPS after it leaves your possession, GadgetTrack (www.gadgettrak.com) might be able to help. GadgetTrack offers a service that monitors software installed on your device. If the device is plugged into a computer, the software is triggered and it communicates transparently via an encrypted connection, even circumventing many common firewalls. If the device has been reported stolen, GadgetTrak collects information from the host system and data is sent to GadgetTrak, which will generate a report with the time, username, computer name, internal network address, location (country, state/region, city), ISP (Internet Provider Information) and other info that relates to that connection. GadgetTrack can protect iPods, laptops, cell phones, digital cameras, USB Drives and GPS unit. It can even make use of the Macintosh laptop integrated webcam to grab images of the thief.
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Publications : Bar Bulletin: June 2008

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