How To Track Your Vehicle on the Cheap

LoJack schmojack. You don't need some spendy radio transponder to keep tabs on that new Escalade. Uplinking your wheels to the great eye in the sky without breaking the bank is easier than you think.

Standalone GPS and radio triangulation units can cost hundreds. And that's not counting the installation and (frequently hefty) activation and monthly fees associated with whatever service you do choose. For most of us, it's overkill. The good news is that if you happen to have a GPS-equipped phone lying around, you can rig your own vehicle tracking system for virtually nothing. Here's how it's done:

How To Track Your Vehicle on the Cheap

BURNER PHONE + FREE MAPPING = INSTANT TRACKING
What You'll Need
• A pre-paid phone with a data plan
• An InstaMapper account
• Access to, duh, the Web.
What It Costs
• About $30 for the phone and a little over $10 a month, depending on the cellular plan.
Optional Equipment
12V car adaptor (to keep your makeshift GPS unit juiced).

Here's How to Do It:

GET A PHONE
• If you already have an old handset (make sure it has GPS), skip directly to software installation bit.

• If you don't, head over to Boost Mobile and buy one. Don't worry, they're cheap. We recommend the Motorola i290—at $30, it's the cheapest burner you can get. (Other cheap iDEN phones are also available at Best Buy and Target.)

SET IT UP
• Regardless of which phone you select, make sure you turn on its Internet access (this is not a smartphone, and you have to manually activate that in the settings). Otherwise your phone won't be able to transmit data.
• Tweak the settings. Presumably, you're only going to use this for vehicle tracking, so you'll want to set the ringer volume to 0 and mute the keypad. No point in alerting thieves to the fact they're being tracked, right?

How To Track Your Vehicle on the Cheap

• Next step is choosing a tracking/mapping service. There's no shortage, but we likeInstaMapper because it's free, you can install it over the air (download this tool, and then grab this .zip file), and it's easy to use. AccuTracking is another alternative, but it'll cost you about $6/month.
• Launch that bad boy. On the i290, it'll be located under "Java Apps" and called "GPS Tracker." (Look for the satellite icon). Now enter the device id you got from your InstaMapper account and click "save". The phone will ask for your permission to access the GPS chip. (Select "yes.") When the status message changes from "Locating..." to "Tracking..." you're up and running. You should see the location of your phone on InstaMapper's website.

STASH IT

How To Track Your Vehicle on the Cheap

• The final step is the trickiest. For real 24/7 tracking, you'll need to hardwire the phone to your car's battery. This means getting intimate with the electrical system. If you're not comfortable doing that, ask someone who is...like a professional installer. If you are...proceed.
• You'll first want to pick up a Motorola car charger, like the Syn1630. Next, connect it to car's wiring with a 12V Accessory Outlet. The trick here is finding a 12V circuit in your car that's NOT always on—if you connect it to something that doesn't shut off when you power down your ride, you could drain the battery when the car is parked for a long time. We recommend the light in the glovebox—consult the wiring scheme for your car or ask your mechanic.
• Voila, the adapter will power on your phone automatically whenever you (or a thief) starts the car.
• Finally, you'll want to hide your little tracking device. Since you wired the thing into your glovebox, you might want to stash the phone in there. Now visit the InstaMapper site and track to your hearts delight.

See? It's not that hard. And now that you've saved as much as a grand by not springing for that Lo-Jack, go ahead and use the extra cash for something truly worthwhile, like, say, some nice 20-inch spinners.