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updated 8/1/2007 7:32:09 PM ET

Dateline NBC

Dateline takes on iPod thieves
Hot iPods: Is there a way to stop thieves cold? A Dateline hidden camera investigation.
By Chris Hansen
NBC News

Dana: My iPod was given to me as a Christmas gift, and it was stolen right out of my college dorm room…

Joe: Back in January, my apartment got broken into. The only things they stole were my iPod and digital camera.

Jessica: After school, I looked through my purse to see if I could listen to my iPod and it wasn't there.

Jeff: They didn't actually take anything else out of the car, just the iPod.

Frustrated iPod owners are angry, their music taken from them by thieves Dateline caught on hidden camera.

On Dateline Wednesday, 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.

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.

But as you've just heard--if you've got to have it, so do thieves.

In Los Angeles, robberies of iPods and other gadgets shot up 34 percent last year.

In San Francisco, iPod robberies nearly doubled.

The crime wave has led to some schools across the country banning iPods!

Even Apple admits the problem is serious, sometimes leading to injuries of iPod owners, in once case in New York City, even tragedy.

WEEKEND TODAY

A TEENAGER..MURDERED OVER AN IPOD. TWO SUSPECTS IN CUSTODY..

The theft is so common, thieves have led to a new term: i-Jacking.

Det. Richard Kenney, NYPD: I've had hundreds of investigations that involved iPods at one point in time.

Richard Kenney is a New York City Police Department Burglary Detective.

Kenney: This is a problem all over the United States.

Chris Hansen, Dateline correspondent: Have you talked to other detectives in other cities?

Kenney: It's basically the same all over. People are stealing iPods. And detectives have additional work on their desks.

We met the detective when a Dateline senior producer's son had his iPod stolen.

And we wondered, since the iPod is such a high-tech marvel capable of communicating with a central database each time it's plugged into a computer -- if an iPod went missing, maybe there was some way to find it.

Alain Ferry wondered the same thing when he lost his girlfriends’ iPod.

Hansen: And what did you say to your girlfriend?

Alain Ferry: I didn't say anything. I didn't tell her, I was like, I'll find the damn thing.

But how? Would there actually be a way to track down stolen or missing iPods?

If you own an iPod, you already know that when you first buy it, you plug it into your computer and register it with Apple. Apple files the iPod's serial number and requests personal information like your name and address.

Then, each time you want to download or purchase a song online from iTunes, your computer communicates with a central database at Apple. If you buy a song, Apple requests credit card information.

And it's because of all that identifying information that some consumers are convinced iPods can be tracked if they're lost or stolen.

Since Apple is in the best position to track iPods, we called the company to see if it would work with us on a story that set out to answer whether a stolen iPod could be traced.

Apple declined.

That left us with one option.

We'd have try to track down some missing iPods ourselves.  Track them down, using the same kind of information Apple might have at its disposal.

We had one overburdened detective in our corner.

Hansen: Do you think thieves take things because they know there's a lower risk of being caught?

Kenney: Absolutely. I think that anyone who knows that they will be not caught is more likely to commit that crime.

And if we could show it's possible to track down iPods, it might give at least some thieves second thoughts about taking them.

One iPod we tracked was taken. It would disappear on the streets of Santa Monica.

Can we find the thief and the iPod? We're about to find out.

You're watching an iPod being taken.

In an instant, it's gone.

New York City police detective Richard Kenney admits that if it's happened to you, as things stand now, you're pretty much out of luck.

Chris Hansen: What are the realistic chances that you can recover somebody's stolen iPod?

Det. Kenney: Out of all the investigations I've done, I've only been involved in one case…

Hansen: One case?

Kenney: … where we recovered two iPods.

But detective Kenney thinks he'd be more successful if he could use some of the iPod's own high-tech capabilities to track them down.

Obviously most iPods that are stolen aren't new in the box, they're like this one. Police like detective Kenney imagine a crime-fighting scenario like this:

If this iPod was reported stolen, the real owner could supply his name, address and the serial number of the device to authorities or to Apple.

Then, if a thief tried connecting the stolen iPod, a central database could detect its serial number -- or other personal data embedded in that machine -- to immediately flag it as stolen.  

And if the thief supplied personal information when he tried buying songs from the iTunes database, or by answering other questions on-line, he could be located and arrested.

But since we aren't Apple, and we don't have our own iPod database, how could we possibly test the theory?

We'd have to have a plan.

First, we went shopping. We bought dozens of iPods. These were iPods that we'd use as bait to be stolen -- or deliberately lost.

We hired a software company, Blackfin Tech, to help us. 

Jefferson Jewell: We're hoping to collect information that will enable us to pinpoint the location of a stolen iPod!

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.

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.

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.

Jewell: The information ranges everything from first name, last name to mobile phone number, home phone number, home address … what your MySpace handle is. All sorts of things.

Now it was time to see if our plan would work.

First, how do thieves usually steal iPods?

We'd seen store surveillance video of thieves in Minnesota and even seen an airline pilot who authorities said was caught on tape stealing a passenger's iPod in a Florida security line.

And NYPD detective Richard Kenney says while some iPods are stolen in burglaries...

Kenney: Generally speaking, the most common is just people leaving them lying around. And someone lifting it off a table.

So that's how we decided to get our iPods taken -- by just leaving them some place unattended.

First stop? Berkeley, Calif., where police told us there'd been a rash of iPod thefts and robberies near Berkeley High School..

Producer: All right, let's give this a shot…

Our Dateline producer places the brand new iPod, still in the box, on the dashboard of our convertible.

Incredibly within seconds a group of students comes along and our iPod is gone.

We put out another iPod. To their credit, dozens of students walk past without taking it. But then, watch these two: they walk past our car, see the iPod, and soon after, one turns around to grab it from the dash.

As they walk away, they look pleased with themselves and their new stolen iPod.

But how happy will they be if we can find them?

Next stop, Fisherman's Wharf, across San Francisco Bay. We left iPods in shopping bags on benches and walked away as if the owner had momentarily left them behind or as if the bag had been forgotten.

What would you think if you found something like this in a crowded tourist area?

Would you think the iPod didn't belong to anyone?

Watch this young man. With our producer just a few feet away, he sits down, biding his time. And minutes later, watch his hand as he grabs the iPod before he stands up and walks away.

Does he think he's found an iPod? Or does he know he's doing something wrong?

But teenagers wouldn't be the only ones taking our iPods. This woman notices our bag and soon sits down next to it. After a few seconds, she takes the iPod and places it in her shopping bag before hurrying away.

So far, four iPods: missing in action in the Bay area. But before we try to track them down, we plant more.

Next, we travel to several malls in northern New Jersey, where we watch as this young woman takes our iPod left atop a car in a shopping bag and skips happily away.

Remember, detective Kenney said most iPods are taken when they are inadvertently left somewhere.  So we go inside the mall and leave our iPods on benches as if we're a shopper who's simply walked away. Will anyone turn the iPods into lost and found? Or will they take our iPods home?

First, we watch as this young man grabs a black canvas bag we put down bearing an iPod. In case you're wondering if he understands the moral issues in what he's doing, he does return the tote bag to lost and found, but he takes the iPod that was inside.

Again and again, people walk away with our iPods.

This woman doesn't even hesitate. She grabs a shopping bag with our iPod inside, turns around and is gone.

Our unattended iPods seem to be like magnets.

How would you feel if you went to a food court in a mall, got up to buy a snack and left your new iPod at your seat and this happened?

Check out this couple as they take the iPod from our table. 

It's enough to make you lose your appetite.

We even see young children, like this boy who takes our bag and then hands it to his mother.

We should point out that not everyone in every city we went to took the iPods left by Dateline. Time and again, people sat down next to the iPods and did nothing. Others, like this mall employee, were curious enough to look in the bag but when they  realized the value of the iPod inside waved down security. They did the right thing, but many others did not.

We move on to Las Vegas, where more iPods are taken.

Again, we hit the food court in a mall and leave the iPod on a table,  as if a shopper had simply put it down, then walked away briefly to grab lunch. Minutes later, this young man appears, finds our iPod, and after a brief discussion with a friend, disappears with it --  even though security guards are standing no more than a few feet away.

Then, in the same mall, we leave an iPod on a bench. Watch this man find the iPod, discard the shopping bag it came in, and nonchalantly walk away with his female companion.

Would we ever see this iPod again?

We'd soon find out--but there would be more iPods to disappear.

We visit the historic Fremont district of Las Vegas.

Watch this woman. She looks at the bag, walks around it for several minutes, apparently checking to see if anyone is watching. And then she makes her move.

She grabs the bag and disappears into the crowd.

And this man did the same. He moves in as all the tourists let down their guard, watching a loud light show overhead. He takes the unattended bag with our iPod inside and casually saunters away.

Finally, we come to our last stop: Santa Monica, Calif. We leave shopping bags with iPods inside on benches at the Third Street promenade.

It wasn't long before they're all gone. Taken…

...by this man out for a walk with his dog…

...this maintenance man…

...and finally, this woman, who wastes no time picking up the bag.

Watching so many people walk away with iPods that didn't belong to them didn't seem to surprise NYPD detective Richard Kenney.

Hansen: What do you suppose it is about iPods that has made them such a target for thieves?

Det. Kenney: They're very easy to sell because they're so small. People can hold them in their hands and sell them at street level.

Now, we'd had a total of 20 iPods taken by people they didn't belong to. 

If one of these was your iPod, would you want to know who had it?

Would you want to know who was dancing down the street with your headphones in their ears?

Remember: none of the people who took our iPods realize that when they install the software they're not just going to be supplying information to Apple.

They're going to be talking to Dateline.

Hidden camera

Hansen: You recognize those guys?

Student: Yeah. That's me!

We had watched our iPods disappear in cities across America -- in Las Vegas, in Paramus and Wayne, N.J., in San Francisco, Santa Monica, and in Berkeley.

We called Apple's corporate security line as an average consumer to see if it often receives calls about stolen iPods.

(Telephone call)

Chris Hansen: Wow, all day long every five to six minutes you get a call like this? Every day?

And if we were your average music lover, we'd probably be out a $250 iPod.

Remember, the people who lifted them don't know we're tracking them, using some of the same information they provide to Apple when they register a new iPod.

First, remember that iPod taken from Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco? The one picked up from a bench?

Just five days later, someone hooks it up to a computer and uses our installation disc and registers a real address in Fairfield, Calif.

That's how simple it was for us to track down and locate one of our missing iPods.

We want to talk to the person who has it; find out who would take an iPod that didn't belong to them.

We need a cover story.

So we rent this 32-foot RV and attach a banner proclaiming that the 30th anniversary music giveaway is in town. 

To get them into the RV we'll be telling the person who has our iPod they've won iTunes gift cards, good for free music, if they come into our fully equipped, giveaway RV.

What they won't know is that the RV is fully equipped with hidden cameras.

It was now time to hit the road and head to the address where our iPod was located, 48 miles from where it was taken. Our Dateline producer knocks on the door.

Producer: Someone in this house recently registered a new iPod?

A young man agrees to come on board our RV.

Chris Hansen: Hey how are you doing? Good to see you … How are you? Have a seat.

This 17-year-old high school junior told us his brother, who wasn't home, had registered a new iPod a few weeks before after he got it as a gift.

Chris Hansen: So where did [he] get that gift?

Student: Uh, one of his friends got him it. It was one of his friend's dads.

And where does he say the friend's dad got it?

Student: I think Best Buy

Chris Hansen: Best Buy? Ok…

It's time to show him our video from Fisherman's Wharf.

Chris Hansen: So these guys look familiar to you?

Student: That's me and my brother.

Chris Hansen: That's you and your brother? So you knew at the time he was taking that iPod…

Student: Yeah my little brother pointed it out and he grabbed…

It became apparent that at least in some cases, the kind of person who would take an iPod is going to be an impulsive teenager.

The people would probably not really be a criminal. So we decided to disguise the identities of the minors in our story.

Chris Hansen: There's something else that you need to know. That is, you know, I'm Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC. And we're doing a story on stolen iPods.

Student: All right..

Chris Hansen: So what's the lesson here?

Student: Don't steal.

Chris Hansen: Okay. What are you going to tell your brother?

Student: I'm going to tell him that you just got caught stealing and maybe you shouldn't do it again.

Their parents declined comment for our story.

Next stop: Berkeley, Calif., where you'll recall just outside Berkeley High, we watched another young person snatch an iPod from our convertible.

Whoever ended up with our iPod, plugged in the installation software and registered, not only with Apple but with Dateline, to an address that led us 15 miles north of Berkeley to the town of Hercules, Calif.

Out comes this young man, ready to claim his gift card inside the RV.

(Hidden camera)

Chris Hansen: Hey, how are you doing, man? Have a seat…

Another 17-year-old who may not have thought about the consequences of his actions.

It's time to tell him why we're here.

Chris Hansen: You recognize those guys?

Student: Yeah. That's me.

Chris Hansen: with the hat on, that's you?

Student: Yeah

Chris Hansen: and why don't you narrate for me what's going on in that video.

Student: Oh, we saw an iPod and we took it.

Chris Hansen: You saw an iPod and you took it … so was that your car? Was that your iPod? Then why did you take it?

Student: I don't know, I just got excited

Chris Hansen: Now you know that it's wrong, and if this were some kind of a police operation…

Student: I could be in jail.

Chris Hansen: You could be in serious trouble.

He'll soon be on his way back to the house, where he'll have to figure out what to tell his family, who later called what the young man did, an 'embarrassment' and offered to pay NBC for the iPod.

But ironically, it turns out he wasn't able to enjoy our iPod very long. He says it was stolen from him!

Chris Hansen: Really? Where was it when it got stolen?

Student: In Berkeley High.

Chris Hansen: And was it like in your locker, or… ?

Student: I guess someone found out my locker combination and took it.

Our iPod has been stolen again.

More of our missing iPods were phoning home with their locations. Next, they were calling us back to Los Angeles, where three weeks earlier we'd had four iPods taken that were left in shopping bags.

Producer: You recently registered a new iPod?

One of the iPods was traced to this woman, who we found at a record store she owns in L.A.

Chris Hansen: Hey, how are you?

Woman: Wow!

Chris Hansen: Here you go. Here have a seat for a minute.

At first, she is thrilled by our visit.

Chris Hansen: When you got your iPod was it a gift? Or did you buy it?

Woman: It was a gift.

Chris Hansen: And was it from a family member, or…

Woman: Yes, a family member.

Chris Hansen: And do you know did they buy it at a Circuit City or a...

Woman: Best Buy.

What became apparent in this case was that this woman who ended up with the iPod wasn't actually the person who took it. 

She may think it came from a Best Buy, but I showed her where it really came from.

Chris Hansen: The iPod that you have was actually in that chair, in that bag.

Woman: The one that I have?

Chris Hansen: The one that you have. The very iPod.

Woman: The one that I got as a gift?

Chris Hansen: Yes … How could that be?

Woman: I guess the person who gave it to me as a gift bought it off the street.

Chris Hansen: And who was it who gave it to you?

Woman: My husband. But I don't know where he got it from.

Chris Hansen: Now I'm not saying you did anything wrong here or accusing you of anything. But there are a couple things that you need to know ... and one is that I'm Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC.

Woman: Right.

Chris Hansen: And we're doing a story on stolen iPods.

Woman: I am shocked. Really shocked … can't wait to call him and ask him where did it come from.

On her way out the door, she gives us back the iTunes gift card.

Woman: That's okay.

Chris Hansen: You sure?

Later, she calls: her husband told her he'd bought the iPod not at Best Buy, but at a flea market.

We've shown that it's possible -- even easy -- to track and locate stolen iPods.

But there are more surprises to come, from people who have no idea they're in possession of a stolen iPod.

Woman: Okay, this is not Dateline is it?

Chris Hansen: You know, we get that all the time. Here have a seat over here…

We'd successfully tracked down two missing iPods taken in the San Francisco Bay Area.

And we followed another one in Los Angeles, picked up from a bench and sold at a flea market -- days later, given as a gift, to this woman.

Woman: I'm shocked. Really shocked.

And remember, we were able to track all of them down simply because the users sent personal information  about themselves once they registered our missing iPods. They registered not just with Apple, the manufacturer, but also with Dateline.

Remember this iPod, shown being lifted in the Fremont District of Las Vegas?

When we checked the registration, it led us to this woman, not your average iPod customer, in the small town of San Jacinto, Calif.

And it didn't take long for her to guess who we were.

Woman: Okay, this is not Dateline is it?

Chris Hansen: We get that all the time. Here, have a seat over here.

Obviously she's not the person taking it on the video. She told us, she got it as a gift.

Chris Hansen: and it was a gift from whom?

Woman: It was from my husband … He brought it back for me from Las Vegas.

The iPod had traveled 260 miles from where it was stolen, and this hard-working woman began to worry she was in a bit of hot water, especially because she knew who we were.

Woman: You're Chris whatever from Dateline…

Chris Hansen: I'm Chris Hansen? I get that all the time.

Woman: And I'm like okay, I'm not a predator so…

Chris Hansen: So what could be going on here?

Woman: Yeah.

Chris Hansen: Well, let me tell you what is going on. I am Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC, and we're doing a story on stolen iPods.

Woman: Oh, you're kidding! You've got to be kidding!

Chris Hansen: And we know you didn't steal anything so you're not in any trouble…

Woman: Well I know my husband didn't steal it either…

So where did her husband say he got the iPod?

Woman: Well, he told me he bought it off a guy that was sitting next to him at a poker table.

Chris Hansen: So he was playing poker?

Woman: He was playing poker.

Chris Hansen: And a guy next to him says…?

Woman: He says I won this playing poker, you want to buy it? And he bought from him.

Chris Hansen: What's the lesson in this? I mean clearly this is not something you're not going to enjoy as much as you would had it been…

Woman: I doubt if I'll ever use it now, to be honest with you.

Next, it was time to move on to New Jersey, where we'd had five iPods pinched from parking lots and shopping malls.

First stop: the town of Kearny.

This 17-year-old has registered our iPod but didn't use his real name.

However, after installing our Dateline disk, he agreed to reveal the identity of his computer via things like e-mail accounts and personal websites. We don't know if Apple has access to the same information when iPods are plugged into computers, but it did allow us to learn his real identity.

And while he lied about his name, he did admit how he got the iPod.

Student: Uh, me and my friend actually found the iPod.

Chris Hansen: And where did you find it?

Student: At a mall…

And the videotape backs up his story -- to a point.

Student: I told him yo, there's a bag. We should return it. He's like, all right well go pick it up and we'll return it to lost and found.

Chris Hansen: Now what you don't see on the video, but what we saw, was you turning in the bag -- but not the iPod.

Student: right.

Chris Hansen: Why turn in the bag and the rest of the stuff but not the iPod?

Student: I don’t know. I know what I did is wrong. If I could go back I wouldn't have done it.

Attempts to reach this young man's parents were unsuccessful.

On his way out, he tells us he didn't even keep the iPod but gave it to a friend.

Remember this iPod taken off the roof of our car at the mall in Paramus, N.J.?

It found its way to the town of Clifton.

The college sophomore who filled out our online tracking registration with her real name and address told us she got it the same way most people do. She bought it.

Chris Hansen: Where did you buy it?

Woman: Best Buy.

Chris Hansen: Best Buy. Was it cash, credit card or check?

Woman: Uh, cash…

But the video doesn't exactly show her purchasing it at a Best Buy.

Chris Hansen: Now does any of this look at all familiar to you?

Woman: Yes.

Chris Hansen: It does? Why?

Woman: Because that was the day I found it.

Chris Hansen: The day you found it?

Woman: Yes … I took it and kept on going.

Chris Hansen: You took it and kept going. Even doing a little victory dance?

Woman: Yeah...

Her defense?  She'd been a victim of iPod theft herself! And this was a way to even the score.

Woman: well someone did it to me!

Chris Hansen: Somebody stole your iPod?

Woman: Yes.

Chris Hansen: So you figured you'd take somebody else's?

Woman: Well, I mean, it was sitting on top of a car, so, if I left it there someone else is going to take it.

Chris Hansen: So you don't see anything wrong with what you did?

Woman: Well, yeah, I mean I felt wrong when someone did it to me!

Chris Hansen: Then why would you do that to somebody else if you felt cheated when yours got ripped off?

Woman: Because it's a cruel world so everyone does it to everybody.

Chris Hansen: Does that make it right?

Woman: No. Not at all

Chris Hansen: If there's anything else you want to tell me…

Woman: Of course, I apologize, you know, and I didn't know that they could be tracked. And I felt bad when it happened to me..,

Then she does something we haven't seen before. She gives the iPod back.

Another lost iPod has been found simply by using the online registration information.

Finally, it's time for us to try and track down the rest of our missing iPods in Las Vegas.

We find one in the hands of yet another 17-year-old, and like so many others he claims it was purchased legitimately.

Chris Hansen: And do you know what store your mom bought this iPod in?

Student: I'm not sure. I think, Best Buy.

But minutes later, after he's seen our video of him picking up our iPod from a table in the mall food court -- then walking away -- he appears to have learned a lesson, and has some advice.

Student: If you find a stolen iPod, just give it back to lost and found.

This young man's father later tells Dateline he thought we were unfairly tempting kids to take iPods.

And finally, we meet this man..

Chris Hansen: Hey, man, how are you? Good to see you.

He filled out our online registration using his real name and address.

First he tells us he bought the iPod. Then he says he found the iPod.

But none of this explains the video we have of someone who looks just like him lifting the iPod off a bench in a mall.

His response?

Man: You can equate it to walking down the street and finding a $100 bill on the floor. I mean, where you going to take that if you're just in the middle of the street?

Chris Hansen: But this is a product that was in a mall, and you could've at least gone to lost and found!

Man: Okay. So I guess I used bad judgment at that moment.

We'd tracked down 12 of the 20 missing iPods.

Some of those taken would never turn up because no one ever bothered to register them. So we can't be sure if any of these people actually tried to find who really owned the iPods in order to return them.

We do know it was easy to locate the ones that were registered.  And we did it using some of the same information that owners provide to Apple when any new iPod is registered.

We saw them disappear in cities from coast to coast. 

Some people who took the iPods still had them, but others had no idea they were stolen.

Either way, using basic information similar to what Apple gets when an iPod communicates with its database, we'd successfully tracked down more than half of the missing gadgets.

Remember, all we did was put out new iPods to get our information when the machines were registered online.

We know some stolen iPods could probably never be tracked, because some are probably never hooked up to a computer.

But the question is, if we were able to track iPods could Apple do something similar -- or something else -- to discourage theft?

There are some iPod owners who believe the answer is yes.

But when this man, whose iPod was stolen, called Apple for help…

Joe: They pretty much told me that I was ---- out of luck and there was nothing I could do and nothing they can do.

And that's the same message received by Alain Ferry when his girlfriend's iPod was stolen.

Ferry called Apple thinking because of all the technology at its disposal that the company could trace it for him. 

Apple said it couldn't help.

Chris Hansen: What was your attitude when you hung up the phone with Apple?

Ferry: I'm going to figure something to do. I'll come up with a solution here … Apple could do something. And I'm going to make sure that everyone knows that Apple could do something.

So, Ferry started a campaign of sorts. First, in 2006, the law school graduate set up a Web site called stoleniPods.com. He asked for comments from visitors and received thousands of e-mails like this one…

Ferry: “I don't care if they call in SWAT, break in their doors and beat them within an inch of death. I just want my iPod back.”

But what began with e-mails has become a movement of angry iPod owners convinced Apple could find their iPods -- and the thieves.

Hansen: Why should Apple be held accountable if somebody gets their iPod stolen?

Ferry: Oh, I'm not saying that they should be held accountable. I just want them to do more than they're doing.

We should say that many of iPod's competitors in the mp3 market apparently don't do anything more than Apple does to track missing machines.

But it's not uncommon for high-tech companies to help when some products are lost or stolen.

If you lose your cell phone, some wireless companies will shut it off and flag the phone as stolen if it's ever brought in for service.

If your computer's lost or stolen, software like Lojack for laptops can lead you to it.  The computer, when hooked to the Internet, sends a silent signal to the headquarters of Absolute Software in Vancouver, British Columbia -- and voila! Police are alerted about where to find the stolen item.

And if you call Hewlett Packard, Dell or Gateway, to name a few, their customer service reps will take down a computer's serial number and flag it as stolen if it ever turns up.

But what about Apple?

Detective Richard Kenney's called the company for help solving cases involving stolen iPods.

But with 110 million iPods out there and sales dwarfing those other products, maybe the answer he got is not so surprising.

Det. Kenney: Apple's response is that due to the overwhelming numbers of iPods that they manufacture and sell each year that they cannot create a database with that kind of information.

Watch what happens when we asked this retired detective we hired as a consultant to call Apple corporate security. He introduced himself as an investigator attempting to get information about a stolen iPod.

Clancy: Apple does not flag any items? Do you know why?

Clancy: They said the sheer volume of thefts and, um, disputes in schools alone would overwhelm them.

Here's another scenario. What if you found someone's iPod and wanted Apple's help returning it?

This woman bought an iPod from someone she met in a bar.

She began to suspect it was stolen when she noticed someone else's name engraved on the back. She then contacted stoleniPods.com founder Alain Ferry, who put her in touch with Dateline.

Melinda: I heard that Apple helps reunite the owner of the iPod.

We decided to try to help solve her problem. So we sent her to an Apple store in New York City to try to return the iPod, with a hidden camera recording her every move.

(Hidden camera)

Melinda: I had buyer's remorse the next day because it doesn't belong to me. Do you help people reunite them and their iPods?

Apple: You're doing all the right things because we can't look up, even if we could look it up we can't guarantee that the name attached to it is the right person.

Melinda: Couldn't you like, take the information and then try to contact him?

Apple: It's a matter of not only liability, but privacy, so we're not allowed to do any of that. Honestly.

She then went to a second Apple store.

The manager at this store did look up the iPod's registration and serial number.

Apple: There's a registration. It's been registered by someone. So there's info about that person…

Melinda: So Matt--can contact him and say someone found your iPod?

Apple: That's your call…

And that's what happened.

The manager returned this stolen iPod to its rightful owner.

This iPod story has a happy ending.

Ferry: I think it's pretty simple!

It's exactly the case Alain Ferry, who runs stoleniPods.com, has been trying to make.

Ferry: Apple needs to recognize that they've created a device, a product that is so incredibly successful that it's become a commodity on the black market. Change things around a little bit. You know -- be the pioneer that they've always been. Think different!

And guess what? We just learned that Apple may be doing exactly that, and may end up being the hero of our story.

We were able to zero in on more than half.

And police officers like detective Richard Kenney of the NYPD says if Apple does what we did, it would stop iPod crime in its tracks.

Chris Hansen: If the public knew there was a way to track these things down, what do you think would happen to the incidence of iPod theft?

Det. Kenney: The people who are actually committing the crimes and stealing them would stop doing that because they won't have anyone to sell them to.

Is he right?  We went straight to the horse's mouth: the people who took our iPods.

Chris Hansen: Had you known that there was a way to track these things, would you have taken it?

Student: No I wouldn't have … I wouldn't have taken it in the first place.

Student 2: No way, they wouldn't take it at all!

Chris Hansen: No one would take it if they thought it could be tracked down?

Student 2: People like me wouldn't. I'd be like, no way.

And calls for Apple to take action are being heard not just here, but around the world.

In England, a top government crime-fighting official who left office just last month had a message for manufacturers like Apple.

John Reid: If I had one piece of advice, it actually wouldn't be to young people, it would be to the manufacturers. And that is: help us to design in features which reduce crime.

Levy: People are very nervous that they're tracked when they use technology!

Steven Levy is a senior editor at Newsweek magazine and the author of "The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness."

Levy: I think since they're not legally responsible they don't want to take that extra mile and say “Hey, we know everyone's serial number of every iPod that connects to the iTunes store.”

Hansen: Do you think Apple has the technology currently to track a stolen iPod?

Levy: My guess is that, you know, probably they have the technology to figure out whatever ID is on there, but I don't think they have the obligation … It might be a good incentive to add to AppleCare, which is their insurance policy for iPods, to have some kind of tracking thing. They make money from AppleCare -- that's a profit center for them, so maybe it'd be more profitable. People would sign up more if they had iPod stolen insurance in there. If the mother ship could track down the iPod more people might sign up for AppleCare and Apple might make more money.

And although Apple declined our 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.

Levy: If an owner wants to opt in and they're offering it as a service, then I think that could be a good thing.

Until Apple follows through with the plans outlined in the patent, others have rushed to meet demand for someone to do something about stolen iPods. Alain Ferry has turned stolenipods.com into a business venture: unloseit.com, which bills itself as earth's lost and found center, and uses a system of stickers and rewards to reconnect lost or stolen gadgets with their owners.

Other companies like Gadget Track use tracking software. Another firm, Stuffbak.com, like unloseit.com, uses a system of stickers to help recover gadgets and other property.

After all when it comes to iPods, people will do almost anything to get theirs back. Alain Ferry, and some of those who first asked for help, just went out and bought new ones.

And Steven Levy?

He had his precious iPod stolen too. But he's getting by and using an old one for now.

Levy: Look, obviously I'm not going to shrivel and die without an iPod. But you know, life wouldn't be as fun!

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