One expat’s saga of an El Centro iPhone theft, the chase, the sting, the recovery and a happy ending

Apr 6, 2021 | 22 comments

By Reginald Williams

When someone picks your pocket and pilfers your cell phone, at first you panic. Then you are exposed to feelings of discouragement and vulnerability. You feel disheartened and helpless. Then finally, you accept that there’s nothing to do except lament that the replacement of data and a new device will cost a lot of time and money.

Reginald Williams with his iPhone

But this tale has a different ending. This is the story of a successful “sting” resulting in the retrieval of my iPhone that involved a tenacious wife, the police and their undercover officers, as well as gringos and an Ecuadorian friend.

It all started on the afternoon of March 6 when I checked my iPhone to confirm the bus schedule before going to get a massage. I was just a block away from Plaza San Francisco, on Calle Presidente Cordova. I guess the thief most likely spotted and tagged me at that moment. Anyway, it wasn’t more than 60 seconds later that I reached into my specially designed “thief proof” pocket for my iPhone. It wasn’t there and I immediately had that sinking feeling telling me it was gone for good!

Half panicked — what about my data? what would my wife say? — I ran home, fearing all the while that she’d be furious with me for not following her advice to never pull my iPhone out in public in the historic center.

The Saga
Thus began a three-day saga. I’ll skip the tedious details of my agonized and erroneous initial attempts to protect my data. Simply put, rather than appropriately signing into the requisite site on the cloud and registering my phone as lost, I first “removed it from my account”, thinking that would help keep the thief’s sticky fingers away from my precious data. Wrong! This made it impossible for me to do anything further to protect my data. Worse yet, it was an irreversible step.

Fast forward 36 hours, skipping over many grueling hours of time spent with Apple tech support. And omitting the many more hours spent frantically changing passwords and considering replacement options we get to the nuts and bolts of the story.

She found it!!!
It’s already 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning. The thought of retrieving my prized phone is barely even a fantasy by now and suddenly my wife calls out, “Come here. I’ve found it!!” No, it wasn’t in the hidden pocket in my backpack. And it wasn’t physically anywhere near us. Unbelievable as it may seem, my wife has been tirelessly looking through Facebook Marketplace and has found my phone. Yes, it has made its way through the pipeline potentially connecting the thief (or probably his intermediary) to a buyer. And yes, the reseller has even published the serial number.

“So it really ends in WXXPH?” Yes, it really ends in WXXPH. Yes, it’s mine.

The Chase
After checking and double checking that the digits are the same, we carefully begin scheming a way to retrieve my phone without “just buying it back”— the easy way out. First, we contact our former neighbor, Angela, inadvertently waking her. Because she’s fully bilingual, delightful, always eager to help, and most importantly, connected to the city government through her husband, we ask her advice. At this point we’re already trying to figure out how we can get the police to move quickly enough to pull off a sting before the thing gets sold and slithers away into Never Never Land.

Angela relays the message from her husband whose advice is to go to the Fiscalía, a municipal office responsible for protecting the rights of citizens, located on Simon Bolívar, and register my denuncia (complaint). He says they’ll want a copy of my factura showing my original purchase, and that I’ll need to show the police report, as well. Even as we begin preparing to follow this advice, we see our day slipping away tied up in endless lines trying to submit the report we should have submitted immediately after the theft, and waiting for it to get channeled to the right person. Meanwhile, the thief will be busily stealing my data, rendering me an indigent and himself a newly made man. Which…is why I never bothered with a police report in the first place, opting instead to race home and work on solving the problem.

We do make our way to the Fiscalía, however, and inquire at the reception. After a seemingly interminable wait we’re told to file a report online or to go to another Fiscalía located a couple of miles away. We start to think this over, and then… We decide to call Carlos at Blue Box. He’ll know what to do. Fortunately, even though it’s still only about 8:30 a.m., Carlos answers and suggests, “Don’t go to the Fiscalía. Don’t hire an attorney. Go to the police and tell your story to the officer. Offer him $20 or $30 to accompany you to the seller and nab him on the spot.”

Brilliant advice. But as it turns out, it wasn’t quite so simple.

We went to the police station on Luis Cordero and painstakingly told our story. As per Carlos’ suggestion we indicated we were prepared to offer a little reward. However, the officer made it clear that as they were the Municipal Police, they didn’t have jurisdiction. They told us we’d need to go to the National Police at Plaza San Francisco. Oh! This has now escalated to an incident of national consequence?! Glad we’re not going to have to escalate it to INTERPOL!

Not wishing to lose any more time, we dash to the National Police office, repeat our story, make our offer….and are told, “Please go somewhere, set up the buy and come back and see me about 10 minutes before it’s time for the buy.” I asked if the officer didn’t need a little more time to set things up and he thought that yeah, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

It should be understood that I couldn’t be the buyer because the thief had my phone and probably knew my face, so I had to go through someone else, and the policeman wasn’t offering to be that person. So, after first finding fellow gringos willing, even eager to help, we began to think that there might be a glimmer of hope of retrieving the phone. We decided to contact the thief to make an offer he would deem credible. After an initial immediate nibble, we got no response for more than an hour.

We then realized that the seller probably didn’t want to deal with gringos. Too much hassle. Perhaps, even too risky. So, we solicited an Ecuadorian friend. Convinced that the seller knew the phone was stolen and needed to be careful, we thought through a plausible way to make the seller feel comfortable. To our relief he responded, taking the bait — hook, line and sinker, and even revealing “his personal cell number.” We quickly agreed on meeting at an IESS hospital in Monay. It was only later, however, that we would learn that his number was only traceable to a dummy corporation that had no physical address and nothing more than a digital marker on the internet.

Good Grief!
With everything seemingly in place to initiate the “buy,” we rushed back to the police station to report to the officer on duty. Upon discerning that the location at the IESS Hospital in Monay would be outside of his station’s jurisdiction, the officer instructed us to talk to the officers at the Monay precinct office.

At this point we were beginning to wonder about this whole thing thinking, “but we thought you guys were the national, emphasis on national, police!”

Another Delay
It’s about 10:45 a.m. now. Anxious to meet with someone who will actually help us set the ”buy” plan in motion, we quickly make our way to our next destination. Here, the receiving officer seems both wary and surprised by our presence. Apparently, not many gringos show up at this location. Nonetheless, he dutifully listens to our story, at first questioning how we can be so sure the phone being offered for sale is really the exact same phone. We show him the printout of our original purchase receipt which displays the serial number, and the screenshot from the Facebook Marketplace offering showing the identical serial number. It seems to take a moment for him to accept that the seller would actually publish the serial number of a knowingly stolen item, for everyone to see, but then something clicks and he quickly gets to work, calling in two more officers to confer.

At this point we’re really anxious to get to the point where we’re actually laying the trap that we envision. And we’re still wondering if they’ll actually agree to be present for the buy, and wondering if they’ll really go about it correctly. A gaggle of officers come and go, placing calls to another department and conferring amongst themselves. It seems clear that they’re finally ready to set the trap.

The Sting!
It is, of course, a rather simple plan, but we’ve already seen the seller seemingly shy away from one potential buy. And the officers themselves are questioning whether the seller will actually show up at the appointed time. This has been going through our minds as well. After all, the seller is almost certainly aware it’s stolen and is therefore not the most ethical person around. And it also stands to reason that he could have already found another easier and safer buyer, or that he might sense something was wrong and back out.

But after a few more details have been cleared up, the plan is set in motion. Using my amigo’s name, the two undercover agents sent by yet another police department, the fiscal police, will appear at the emergency entrance to the hospital. The buy and the arrest will be set and ready to go.

At the last minute, the plainclothes officers arrive in a very “un-policeman-like” unmarked car. They look perfect. They seem sharp, taking in the whole story very quickly — which they’re apparently hearing for the first time. They size me up. Decide it’s best for me to remain at the station to stand by to clarify any last-minute details decided between me, my friend the buyer, and the seller.

And then I wait. Will “he” even show up? To lighten up the anxious wait I tease a couple of the officers about their work, chat with the lead officer who is directing the operation from the station…and wait anxiously.

Finally, a car pulls up — I think it’s the plainclothes officers — and it is they, with a third guy. Once again a gaggle of officers is engaged in animated conversation. And one pulls a shiny iPhone Max out of his pocket. Its got to be mine! And sure enough it is. The Spanish conversation is more than I can keep up with at this point (I’m about “Spanished out” for the day) but someone says to me something about “finalizing an act”. What??!! They want me to act this thing out and get it in video? What the heck? But no, as I watch one of the officers sit at the computer drawing up some sort of a document and listening to several of them confirming some details regarding the return of the phone and checking its serial number, I realize that they’re documenting the process of turning the phone over to me.

In the end, the reseller of the phone and I are asked to sign a document called an “Acta” which amounts to an amicable agreement in which he agrees to return the phone to me of his own free will and I agree to pursue no legal action against him. It’s been a very undramatic ending to a very long, drama filled day.

But I got my cherished iPhone back, nobody asked me for a bribe, and I’ll certainly think twice — no three times — before ever pulling my phone out again in the central historic district!

For anyone reading this story who should wish assistance with a lost or stolen personal item, it is hoped that the following information may prove useful.

  • If you have knowledge of exactly where your item is you may wish to go to the police as quickly as possible. Ask any police officer or security officer nearby where is the closest Policia Nacional. In the central historic district this will probably be the office located on the southwest corner of Plaza San Francisco. Telephone number: 099-816-9427
  • You should go to the Fiscalía del Azuay located at the corner of Simon Bolivar and Presidente Borrero and file a report (denuncia) if you believe that your belongings have been stolen. They will probably ask for proof of ownership. Telephone number: (07) 284-4282
  • If you have not done so already, you should document any serial numbers of your electronic equipment, as well as invoices or receipts proving ownership of all of your possessions. It was only because we could prove ownership that the police seemed willing to work with us. The Fiscalía will almost certainly request the same documentation.


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