Published: Nov 16, 2012 10:52 PM EST

LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Smart phones do more than just make calls or send messages. They're like a mini computer, camera and camcorder all rolled into one. And their high price tags make them a profitable target for thieves! If your smart phone ever gets stolen, an app could be the key to getting it back, but only if you use it the right way.

In August, Ellen Duke of Fort Myers was shopping at Miromar Outlets, iPhone in hand. "I stopped at my car, dropped some packages off, and kept on my way," Duke said. "When I realized I didn't have my phone, I thought I had just left it in my car."

But when she checked, it was nowhere to be found. "I called it from another phone and it rang and rang. And then, I tried again, and it had been turned off, so I know someone had it."

Ellen got on her computer and activated the "Find my iPhone" app. When her phone was turned back on later that night, it was tracked to Marco Island. "So, of course, I'm really mad, and I went and drove there to try to find it," Duke said.

There, she ran into another problem. It was inside a large hotel building, making it nearly impossible to find. "I sent multiple messages, just being nice, if you found this phone, please call this number to return it," Duke said. "A couple days later, I traced it to Miami, and it had an actual address."

She filed reports locally and in Miami. In a matter of hours, she got some great news. "I was actually returned to the station in the middle of the night, so I think all of my alerts and the police knocking on their door kind of convinced them they didn't want it in their possession."

Here's how it works. You log in to iCloud.com and click "Find my iPhone." If the phone is still turned on, the satellite image will pinpoint it on a map. You can send messages or sound an alert on the phone. With that GPS information, police can track it down.

But like Ellen Duke, not everyone wants to wait. Alisa Accardi of Naples tracked her iPhone to a Publix parking lot, confronting the alleged thief. "I said, are you sure you don't have my phone and she goes no sweetie, no. And I press send. All of a sudden, I hear the alarm," Accardi said. "I'm like you liar, I was like, you're a thief. I  lift up her purse, and in a towel is my phone. I could hear the alarm going off."

Police later showed up to arrest Erose Bornelus. But that scenario could have taken a dangerous turn.

"Your lifeline is your phone, so being without that is a hardship and we definitely want to help reunite you with that item," Sgt. Brian O'Reilly of the Fort Myers Police said. "On the other end, we don't want you to take the law into your own hands and try to confront that person because you have no idea who took it, what their history of violence may be, what type of demeanor they may have, what type of attitude they may have when you knock on their door."
     
Fort Myers Police and the Lee County Sheriff's Office tell us, don't try to get it back on your own. You could be putting yourself in harm's way. The sooner you call them, the sooner they can safely track your device.

"It's like a silent witness," LCSO Crime Prevention Practitioner Kevin Farrell said. "It certainly assists us and helps us work a lot faster and easier than the old days when someone stole something and we would never know where it was until maybe it would show up at a flea market or on a street sale out of the trunk of a car. You want to make that report out. You don't want to confront anybody or come to their house."

Police say, phones that don't have tracking apps rarely are recovered. Within hours, a thief could sell your phone. And in the state of Florida, being in possession of stolen property is not necessarily a crime. While there's no exact number on how many of these devices are stolen each year, experts estimate the losses add up to billions of dollars.

"It doesn't matter how many phones are stolen," O'Reilly said. "We are going to do our best to investigate that immediately, right the wrong, and make the person get their property back."

Rob Mason, owner of "Rob the Phone Doctor" in Fort Myers says there are GPS location apps for all types of smart phones. He says a quick download could save you a lot of stress and money. Replacing a stolen iPhone can cost at least $500.

"As we put more and more important information into these devices, we should take more and more responsibility in protecting them," Mason said. "And hey, if you put all your eggs in one basket, at least have some sort of tracking system for the basket. Every year, we are going to see the value, emotional and cost value of these devices going up, until no more purses, no more wallets, you're just going to have 'the' device."

Ellen Duke said, "The main thing about this app is, even if you don't get it back, you can still protect your information. You can remote lock it."

Duke got her iPhone back, just like it was before. And more importantly, she reclaimed priceless memories. "Actually, my husband and I just found out we were expecting our first baby and we had just taken pictures before I had lost it," Duke said. "That was what I was most upset about, is that I knew i'd never get those back."

Police want to make it clear - no crime, not even a stolen phone is too small for them to investigate. The majority of smart phone thefts are Felony Grand Theft cases. And if the suspect sells the phone, it becomes Dealing in Stolen Property, a Second-Degree Felony.  Just bring them the data from the app, and they'll take over from there.