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Sprint tries to clarify mix-up over missing cellphones

His story has attracted national attention, but Wayne Dobson hasn’t gotten what he wanted: a solution to a bizarre problem that has people knocking on his door looking for their lost or stolen cellphones.

In the past two years, people have shown up five times at all hours at Dobson’s North Las Vegas home, believing their phones were inside. He has been forced to put a sign next to his front door stating that he doesn’t have anyone’s phone.

A Sprint corporate spokeswoman said last week that the reason the owners of missing cellphones – and police – have been coming to his house in error is not because of any glitch on the company’s part.

It’s because of people not under­standing the inaccuracy of cellphone location software.

"We want to get to the bottom of why this is occurring, and we think we have," spokeswoman Stephanie Vinge Walsh said.

Walsh said Sprint is working with North Las Vegas dispatchers to prevent police officers from being wrongly sent to Dobson’s house. Police have twice traced cellphone 911 calls to his house, in error. One day last month, officers woke him at 4 a.m., believing they were responding to a domestic violence call.

Walsh said the company can help dispatchers recognize when they’re given inaccurate cellphone locations.

But as for private citizens who use the technology to track their lost or stolen cellphones, there’s nothing the company can do beyond educating them, she said.


Walsh said the company believes the problem comes from people mis­interpreting the results of cellphone location software.

Take, for example, a situation where your cellphone has a weak signal – in a basement or inside a mall, perhaps. Sprint, or third-party services, won’t be able to provide an exact location for that phone. It would just show up as being inside a general area, such as a 100-meter circle.

But people see that circle and see its center – in Dobson’s cases, his home – and wrongly believe that’s the exact location of their phone.

"Location search results in cases like this are intended to be interpreted as anywhere within a several-hundred-meter-wide circular area – not the center point of the circle itself," Walsh said in an email. "We sincerely regret the inconvenience experienced by Mr. Dobson."

Since Dobson’s story was published in the Review-Journal last week, it has attracted coverage from national outlets ranging from National Public Radio to CNET.

But Dobson hasn’t been given any reassurances that people won’t keep knocking on his door.

"I have not personally been told by anyone that anything’s been fixed," he said.


Walsh’s statement doesn’t explain why the problem appears confined to Sprint phones . The Review-Journal found three cases similar to Dobson’s, and all involved Sprint phones.

In New Orleans, news station WDSU-TV told the story in 2011 of a woman who had four people come to her house asking for their phones back. One of the people was a New Orleans cop.

One of the cellphone owners told the station that Sprint had given them the exact coordinates of the home to find their phone.

The homeowner ended up suing Sprint. The status of the case is unclear.

In San Antonio, news station WOAI-TV found a man who said eight different people in six months came to his home looking for their phones in 2011.

The Review-Journal also spoke to a Decatur, Ga., woman who said people came to her home looking for their phones twice in June 2011.

The first time, Jessica Shirley, 29, saw two women pull up in front of her home and meet police outside. The young mom went outside to talk to them and found they were there for their phone.

The next day, two men showed up, also looking for a phone.

"I thought, are you kidding me?" Shirley said. "I thought I was on ‘Candid Camera.’ "

The men said they weren’t related to the women who showed up the day before.

She hasn’t had any problems since then, but she’s still worried about more people coming to her house.

"It’s scary," she said. "It’s an issue now – who’s the next crazy who thinks I have their phone? You just don’t know."

That’s also Dobson’s concern. People who have shown up at his home have often been upset.

He saw crews working on the Sprint cell tower near his house last week, but he won’t know if his problem has been fixed unless nobody ever comes by his house again.

"I don’t want to live with this problem," he said.

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com or 702-405-9781.

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