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Rise in Cell Phone Theft Spurs Hearing

by Peter Hernandez

Bay Area Reporter

Tuesday February 19, 2013

As cellphone thefts continue to surge citywide, Supervisor Scott Wiener convened a hearing and heard from city officials who said they are aware of the "alarming" rise in robberies but presented limited options to deter the frequency of what is sometimes called Apple picking because the company's iPhones are such a popular target.

"It seems like everywhere I go, every community meeting I go to, people are talking about this," Wiener said. "They know someone or know someone who knows someone who's been robbed and feel a high level of concern."

The February 7 hearing included members of the Board of Supervisors' City Operations and Neighborhood Services and Public Safety committees and officials from the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, the San Francisco Police Department, and the district attorney's office. Law enforcement officials pointed to existing strategies to combat the rise of smartphone theft but did not present any new strategies to identify or to prosecute the thieves who officials say are professional and working largely unorganized.

"We need to employ a prevention strategy," Wiener said, adding that he is interested in a public awareness program that highlights the vulnerability of using smartphones in public.

Public outcry regarding a rise of cellphone theft in particular has resonated citywide. According to a police department CompStat report, robberies have increased 11 percent overall since 2011, and police say 40 to 50 percent of these crimes involve cellphone theft.

On the city's Muni lines, last year's holiday season between October and November witnessed a jump of 70 percent in theft compared to the year prior, the report noted, 276 cases were reported in 2012, compared to 163 cases in 2011.

The trend is nationwide. The Federal Communications Commission reported last year that 38 percent of thefts in Washington, D.C. and 40 percent in New York City were cellphone-related.

Officials say thieves look to snatch devices from unsuspecting and distracted victims then turn around and sell them for several hundred dollars. Some of the phones are sold in hand-to-hand transactions or sometimes overseas.

Particular worry of crime in the Castro and Bernal Heights districts culminated in community meetings where upset members of the public sought more police intervention.

Tracking stolen phones

The major cellphone carriers, Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, introduced a database last year initiated by the FCC, allowing customers to report the theft of their phone, which is then added to a database to prevent it from being re-appropriated.

This database works only on devices with Mobile Equipment Identity numbers, unlike the coveted iPhone, which uses a replaceable SIM card, making it desirable to thieves.

San Francisco Police Commander Mikail Ali said a range of efforts by officers help curb cellphone theft but admitted that the number of distracted cellphone users has outweighed plainclothes officers, who attempt to lure perpetrators by haphazardly using smartphones.

An inquiry by Supervisor Eric Mar highlighted a dearth of ethnic or age demographics of cellphone thefts. He noted "suspicion" by his Chinese constituents who feel that they are being targeted after an armed robbery of employees of a Clement Street pharmacy.

And Wiener, whose district includes Noe Valley and the Castro, said that even concealed smartphones in bags are susceptible to theft, like the January stabbing of a man walking a block from his home at 14th and Noe streets. His backpack was subsequently stolen, which contained a tablet and an iPhone.

In Ingleside last month, an armed robbery of an iPhone with a "Find My Phone" application led a Bayview officer to the Tenderloin, where the suspect was apprehended. This uncovered an organized group of thieves that Captain Timothy Falvey suspects are connected to six or seven other robberies.

In a Sunset robbery last month, a woman's stolen iPhone was used to help police find three men who were later arrested and booked for armed robbery.

Ali suggested at the meeting that Apple product users enable iCloud, which can track a stolen phone via GPS.

An advertising campaign by SFMTA last fall showed a train platform where a man wearing a suit and oversized headphones used a tablet PC while shadowy figures loomed from behind.

"The public needs to be educated that when you're holding up a tablet it's an opportunity for someone to take it and go," Commander Lea Militello of SFMTA Special Operations said.

Militello said that when bus operators suspect a thief onboard, they're encouraged to announce phone safety tips without identifying the perpetrator, as it would be "inappropriate."

Sharon Woo, the chief assistant to District Attorney George Gasc-n, said that there are 220 open robbery property cases that include cellphones. She added that juvenile thefts are on the rise but couldn't provide age or ethnic demographics.

"My husband tells me every morning, 'don't talk on your phone when you're walking. Don't text when you're walking,'" Woo said.

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