App snaps picture of alleged Polk County phone thief

Photo via Polk County Sheriff's Office

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (WFLA) – A 40-year-old man allegedly stole two phones in Winter Haven on April 20, tried to unlock one – and ended up with his face caught on camera. Eric Phelps, of Winter Haven, was already in jail when law enforcement identified him.

“Oops. If you are going to steal a cell phone, steal one that doesn’t have a cool anti-theft application that takes your picture when you attempt to unlock the phone using the wrong security code,” Polk County deputies said Thursday.

That anti-theft app is called Lookout. The company behind the app is based in San Francisco, California. The goal of the app is to protect individuals and businesses by predicting and stopping mobile attacks before they cause harm.

On Wednesday, April 20, deputies responded to the Citgo gas station at 3355 Spirit Lake Road after a victim accidentally left his Samsung Galaxy S6 and his black LG Stylist cellphones on the counter shortly after 6 p.m. The victim returned within minutes to get his phones, but, by that time, a store employee told him the suspect had already taken them.

That’s when the victim, Michael Buckley of Sanford, opened an anti-theft application – from another cell phone. That app took a picture of the suspect while he was trying to unlock the phone using security codes that didn’t correspond with the correct one.

“It’s clearly evident that the phone is much smarter than he is,” Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said. “It’s so nice when technology works with us.”

Victim explains what happened

“I just ran into the store to get something to drink,” Buckley recalled.

He may have gotten his drinks but when he realized he left his phones behind, it was too late. A short time later, Lookout sent him an email – with a photo of Phelps staring him right in the face.

“I showed the cop and he was like, ‘Wow,’ and he was surprised, and he was like, ‘how did you get that?’” Buckley told News Channel 8.

Buckley said this is more than just about the phones. It’s about what was on them.

“I have some pictures of my grandmother who passed away, on the phone, several years ago that I don’t have anywhere else,” he said.

Incidentally, Phelps was taken into custody by the Lakeland Police Department on April 21, accused of knowingly driving with a suspended or revoked license. In addition, he had outstanding warrants for failing to pay child support and for violating probation, deputies said. He was under probation for grand theft and the sale of cocaine.

Deputies said Phelps has been arrested at least 18 times – in Polk County alone.

When the suspect was taken to the Polk County Jail, the stolen cell phones were checked in as jail property. They’ll be given back to Buckley, and Phelps will be charged with grand theft in this case.

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