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Car owners using GPS to track stolen vehicles

Among those who attempted to stop the driver of a stolen snowplow in Toronto on Wednesday morning was the vehicle's owner, armed with little more than the information flowing from a GPS device.

The tracking technologies of popular global positioning systems are changing the way many cases of vehicle theft are playing out for police forces across the country.

In the best-case scenario, police can use services like OnStar to quickly locate a car and return it to its rightful owner.

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But some car owners are using personal GPS units from vehicles or smartphones to track their stolen property, inserting themselves into a police investigation and putting their own lives in danger.

Peter Tolias, president of Tolias Landscaping and Plowing, used a GPS to pass information along to Toronto Police and to pursue the driver himself, even attempting to ram the vehicle at one point in the early morning chase.

"I was just thinking, you know what, I want to try to stop him. I wish I would have hit him … but I just missed him," the 29-year-old told CBC.

Sergeant Tim Burrows of Toronto Police traffic services, said Wednesday's situation, in which the stolen truck was being pursued by its owner as well as police and at least one media vehicle, was rare but not unprecedented

"It happens. I've actually responded to a call where the person was following their own stolen car," he said. "We would prefer them not to get involved."

Following a stolen vehicle is just as dangerous as following a drunk driver, he said. Police advise callers to pass along whatever information they have and stay put.

"Even though a lot of us place a high value on property, and some of it is very valuable, it's not worth risking yourself for injury or worse," he said. "This one was, as we saw, much worse than just stolen property."

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In Wichita Falls, Tex., last week, a police officer was run over by a stolen Land Rover after its owner alerted authorities to the car's whereabouts using a GPS service on his phone, which was wedged between the seats.

The officer survived with two broken ribs, and the alleged car thief was also injured after the car flipped during the high-speed chase that followed.

"I felt awful," owner Whit Snell told the local paper, the Times Record News. "I don't want anyone getting hurt over my stupid car."

Kevin Brookwell, a spokesperson for the Calgary Police Service, said the department has also received reports of stolen property from victims who are tracking the items using GPS.

"We don't encourage that," he said. "But despite what you tell people, they will do what they feel is right at the time."

Even with GPS information from a 911 caller, Mr. Brookwell said police would have to identify "clear and reasonable grounds" to stop a suspect. But he expects the issue to arise with increasing frequency.

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"With people buying the technology more and more, I think you might see more of those situations," he said.

Richard Eros, general manager of Tolias Landscaping and Plowing, said the company uses PinPoint GPS to track and deploy their fleet of trucks.

"This kind of use wasn't a consideration when we bought the system, but it proved very useful for a night like the one we just had," he said Wednesday.

Dave Crooks, a teacher in Calgary, installed a GPS tracking service called Mobile Me on his iPhone so he could find it around the house. Last Thursday, he used it to track the phone after it was stolen from a local arena along with his wallet and car keys.

After he called 911, an officer phoned back from a police cruiser and Mr. Crooks offered live updates of the location of the stolen goods. Police tracked the suspect to an empty church parking lot and made an arrest, and Mr. Crooks got his phone back within an hour.

He said he would not have followed his possessions personally, had police been unresponsive to his plight.

"I'm not going to go vigilante. I'm not that crazy," he said. "I've got two kids at home and you never know."

With a report from Patrick White

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