Why You Shouldn't Reply to iPhone Thieves, According to an Engineer

An engineer has revealed why you should never reply to coercive messages after your iPhone has been stolen.

Hardware engineer and comedian Paris Campbell posted a viral response to iPhone theft victim Stella Kim on TikTok, racking up nearly 4 million in less than one day.

Kim displayed texts from an unknown email address after her phone was stolen. The messages said her phone was "jailbroken" and her personal data would be sold into the black market if she did not remove the device from her Apple ID.

Campbell told Newsweek that in her engineering job, she sees theft victims come in with messages like these "daily." They also fall for the threats just as often.

"The messages prey on people's emotions by giving them the impression they have access to personal things such as photos, even if they actually don't," Campbell said. "Many people don't think clearly, just think about wanting their lost data or not wanting it to get in the wrong hands."

iPhones
An engineer has revealed why you should never reply to coercive messages after your iPhone has been stolen. Here, iPhones on display at an Apple store in Corte Madera, California, in January 2022. Justin Sullivan / Staff/Getty Images North America

She warned on TikTok, "Number one, do not remove the device."

"The only reason that these people are contacting you now is because your phone is actually useless to them," she went on. "You're the only person who can save them and I suggest that you don't."

Campbell explained, "Every time an iPhone is signed in in the settings to an Apple ID, it gets locked to that Apple ID account. And then let's say someone plugs that phone into a computer, tries to erase it, get everything off of it, tries to set it up again—it will forever go to that page that says 'Activation Lock' and it will ask you for your Apple ID email and password, or there's a little thing at the bottom that says 'Bypass with old device passcode.'"

This meant that the person holding Kim's phone had already erased the device and tried to prepare it for reselling, but realized that it was activation locked, said Campbell. They needed the previous owner to unlock the phone in order to resell it.

"They're trying to contact you by threatening you, by lying to you, telling you that they have information that they don't have," she said. "And they're doing this to try to scare you enough to log into your 'Find My' and remove the device because then they can erase it one more time and that 'Activation Lock' screen won't come up for them."

Without the owner's help, the thief could not sell the phone for a profit, said Campbell. They could only strip it apart and sell the parts.

"You can rest assured knowing that they don't actually have any of your information," she added.

A survey from the security company Lookout in 2014 found that one in 10 U.S. smartphone owners were victims of phone theft and the majority could never recover their devices. About 50 percent of victims said they were likely to pay $500 to retrieve their stolen phone's data, while 68 percent said they were willing to put themselves in some danger to retrieve the stolen device.

Apple's Activation Lock feature, introduced in September 2013, led to a significant drop in iPhone thefts across major cities. In the 12 months following this security feature's implementation, the number of stolen iPhones dropped 40 percent in San Francisco and 25 percent in New York, according to Reuters.

In 2020, multiple Apple stores were burglarized amid demonstrations protesting the death of George Floyd, but lockdown functions appeared to prevent the stolen iPhones from being reused. Images of looted iPhones circulated online with a message that read, "This device has been disabled and is being tracked. Local authorities will be alerted."

Campbell's video was flooded with grateful responses from Apple consumers.

"You are doing God's work thank [you]," said one comment.

"As someone who's had their phone stolen before (like pretty much everyone lol), this is so useful. Thank you for sharing," another viewer agreed.

Updated 08/09/2022, 5:08 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with a verified video of the incident.