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Stolen cellphones: How to get them back

SAN ANTONIO – Having your cellphone stolen can strip you of some of your most personal information and can be costly.

If it's happened to you, you're not alone. More than 3 million Americans had their smartphones stolen in 2013, according to Consumer Reports.  

Johnny Villarreal had his iPhone 5 stolen from a shopping cart at a local grocery store.

"All I did was turn around to get a loaf of bread (in) less than two seconds, so basically someone was walking by and just grabbed it," he said.

Once reported stolen, many phone carriers put lost phones on a blacklist so they can't be reactivated by thieves.

"The idea is that eventually all of (phones) are going to be on it," he said. "It's going to block the use of cellphones so it's just going to be used as a paper weight or be shipped to a foreign country."

However, the system is still new and it's not fool-proof. Thieves still manage to unlock phones that aren't on the blacklist.

"Most of the phones that are stolen here in San Antonio tend to be sold on Craigslist or some are sold through Eco ATMs (or) through eBay," said San Antonio police Detective Brad Sanders, with SAPD's Property Crimes. "There are some secondhand stores that do purchase these phones."

As long as your phone is still turned on, there are plenty of apps that can track down the location. If that's the case with your stolen cellphone, Sanders said it's best not to knock on a door, but instead call authorities.

"Police will go to the location and attempt to get the phone back," said Sanders.

However, there is a catch.

The phone has to remain on in order for it to be tracked and it can be hard for police to get a warrant based on information from an app.

Villarreal said he never contacted police but did track down his phone.

"We found the phone in Houston, Texas. It was at the Galleria Mall," he said.

Eventually the person who stole the phone contacted Villarreal via email and tried to get him to give her money.

In the end, Villarreal didn't get the phone back but moved forward with a new phone and a lesson learned.

"A sad lesson learned because there were some precious pictures in there," he said.

Police say it's important to put a passcode on your phone for protection and make a note of your IME and serial numbers. The IME number is used by phone companies to put your phone on a blacklist.

Also, if your phone is stolen, be sure to file a police report, Sanders said.