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Most phone theft victims ready to resort to vigilantism, study shows

With smartphone theft on the rise, a new study finds most people are willing to take matters into their own hands.

Find my iPhone
From left, the Find My Phone feature on Windows Phone, the Find My iPhone app on iOS, and Android's pattern unlock feature. James Martin/CNET

Call it a sign of the times, but most people responding to a new survey say they would be willing to put themselves in "some amount" of danger in order to retrieve a stolen smartphone.

The study, released Wednesday by mobile security firm Lookout, said 68 percent of the people participating in the survey said they were ready to take matters into their own hands.

Many smartphones come with location-based features, like Apple's "Find My iPhone," which can track a mobile device that's been lost or stolen. In the case of theft, some phone owners have been tailing their lost devices to the point of confrontations with the supposed thieves.

That willingness to engage in vigilantism is worrying to public safety officials.

"This is a job for the police," San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon told CNET in an email. "I understand the desire to use these tools to retrieve a valuable object, but a smartphone can be replaced -- a life cannot."

Samsung and Apple, the No. 1 and No. 2 smartphone sellers in the world, did not return requests for comment.

The rise in the rate of smartphone theft has reached "epidemic" proportions, government regulators say. One in ten smartphone owners in the US have had their phones stolen, according to Lookout's study. And one in every three robberies in the United States involves the theft of a mobile device, according to the Federal Communications Commission. On Gascon's home turf of San Francisco, the mobile device theft rate has climbed to 67 percent of robberies.

Consumer Reports says that about 1.6 million Americans were the victims of smartphone theft in 2012, and replacements of lost and stolen mobile devices that year cost an estimated $30 billion.

Some officials have taken to legislation at several levels of government to try to solve the problem. In California, Gascon has sponsored the "kill switch" bill. Introduced by state Sen. Mark Leno, the proposed law would require device makers like Apple and Samsung to include antitheft technology on smartphones that would render them inoperable if stolen. Last week, the bill was shot down by the state Senate, but it is expected to be taken up again this week.

On the federal level, a similar bill, the Smartphone Theft Prevention Act, was introduced in the US Congress in February. That bill is still in committee, making its way through the legislative process. And on Tuesday, London Breed, a San Francisco supervisor, announced she would write kill-switch legislation at the city level.

"Somebody can get killed doing this," one Los Angeles Police Department officer -- who admitted to confronting a smartphone thief while he was off-duty -- told The New York Times last week.

For the Lookout study, over 2,400 smartphone owners from the US, the UK, Germany, and France were surveyed during the month of March. The study didn't specify what kind of danger the respondents would be willing to undergo. Instead, it asked people about the degree of danger they would go through.

The study also offered other stats about smartphone theft. Most phones are stolen because of forgetfulness, not forced robberies. The prime time and place for theft is from noon to 5 p.m. in a restaurant, because its owner left it behind.

People also are more wedded to their personal data on phones than the gadgets themselves. According to the study, half of phone theft victims would be "likely or extremely likely" to pay $500 to get their phones back. One in three would pay $1,000.

This isn't surprising, considering how private people consider the data on their phones.

Sixty percent of Americans believe the information on their phone is just as private as data on their home computers, according to research by Jennifer Urban, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the school's Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic.