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Smartphone Theft: The Latest Trend in Crime

Although the national crime rate is very low historically, the Federal Communications Commission reports on a new trend in crime. One in three robberies involves the theft of a smartphone. This mirrors trends in major urban centers. In San Francisco, the SFPD reports that 50% of robberies involve a smartphone. In New York, the NYPD puts the figure as high as 75%. Stats like this firmly support the fact that smartphone robberies have become the latest epidemic in crime.

The reason for this new trend is simple. Smartphones are small and easy to conceal, are carried by about half of the population and have tremendous resale value. They’re comparable in value to jewelry, but because they’re so common, they’re much harder to identify. The spread of online resale sites like Craigslist has made it even easier for thieves to sell stolen hardware. Demand for smartphones in the booming secondhand market makes it far harder for consumers to distinguish between legitimate resellers and criminals who are trying to move stolen property.

It’s not just a domestic market, either. According to Businessweek, a new iPhone is worth more than $1,100 in Italy and as much as $1,200 in Brazil. This international trade makes it very easy for criminal elements like drug cartels and terrorist organizations to reap tremendous profits from so-called “Apple Picking.” Even a generation-old smartphone could sell for as much as $400 internationally, making it a lucrative source of funding for criminal organizations. In 2009, the Department of Justice busted a criminal ring that had engaged in the re-selling of stolen smartphones. The California group was arrested with more than $4 million worth of technology they intended to resell in Hong Kong.

While it’s less common, some thieves use the access to personal data on your phone to commit identity theft. If you have your credit card number stored in the iTunes, Google Marketplace or other mobile app store, that information can be accessed by technology thieves to commit credit card fraud or other crimes. The same is true if you monitor your credit card or other financial instruments on your smartphone.

This trend doesn’t just threaten your property; it may even threaten your life. Last year, Hwangbum Yang, a 26-year old Korean immigrant who was working as a cook in an upper-end Manhattan restaurant, was shot in the chest after refusing to hand over his smartphone to a man with a gun. He died on the sidewalk with the signature white earbuds of his iPhone still in his ears. Police apprehended the suspect by responding to a Craigslist ad offering to sell the phone for $400. The FCC cautions that robberies are violent crimes and many instances have been reported of robbers targeting cellphones while inflicting serious injury or even killing to acquire them.

This report is part of the impetus toward a national “kill switch” program. Several senators have proposed legislation requiring every smartphone in the US to come equipped with a remote function to wipe all data and permanently deactivate the device. The rationale here is that, if the user can destroy the functionality of the device with a phone call, the tremendous profit that’s available in stolen cellphones will dry up, thus discouraging criminal behavior. Major smartphone distributors object to the program, as installation of this protocol would require new hardware for phones for the US market, therefore requiring a costly and significant change in manufacturing practices.

While the fate of the legislation is still up in the air, it represents only one of the possible solutions to the epidemic of smartphone theft. Here are a few steps you can take to protect yourself against this kind of crime:

Don’t use the default headphones that come with the phone.

These are easily recognizable to potential thieves, which helps them quickly identify you as a target. Get a small, discrete set of earbuds instead.

Don’t use your phone in areas where you’re uncertain of your safety.

This means keeping it in your bag or pocket while you’re on the bus, while walking home at night, or while walking through dangerous areas.

Check with your cellphone carrier about insurance for your phone.

You can often get replacement technology if your phone is stolen or destroyed. This knowledge can help keep you from losing more than your phone in a violent crime.

Know how to de-link your account from your phone.

Whether from a computer, phone or by stopping in to your carrier’s store, you should be able to get your personal information off a device remotely. Being able to do this quickly can help minimize your losses.

As always, practice the same kind of good judgment and safe thinking. Be conscious of your surroundings and avoid situations that seem risky. Take a few sensible precautions, so you don’t become a statistic.