“Crackheads aren’t selling crack any more because it’s easier to steal phones,” San Francisco Police Commission President Thomas Mazzucco said last week.
In the first two months of this year, 335 cellphones were reported stolen to San Francisco police, and about half of all robberies in the city are now smartphone-related. Time magazine recently called it “the fastest rising crime epidemic in American cities.”
The trend has led to conversations between top prosecutors, law enforcement personnel and smartphone manufacturers in cities around the country, including San Francisco. Last month San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón met with representatives of Cupertino-based Apple Inc., manufacturer of the iPhone, to discuss the problem and ways to make the devices less attractive to thieves.
The meeting was “underwhelming” but a first step, said Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the DA’s office.
SFPD Capt. Joe McFadden, who has been studying smartphone theft, said that Apple has been receptive to the police department’s concerns, though there is still a long way to go to address the problem.
“Apple got a name for itself for not cooperating with us,” McFadden said, adding that the company is in fact readily discussing ways to track stolen phones and beef up security so that the devices become less lucrative to steal and resell. Apple and Samsung representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
The area around Market and Seventh streets is one of the city’s biggest hot spots for sales of stolen smartphones, McFadden said. Within half an hour of a theft, the phone can be resold there for $200 to $300, and within two hours it’s often resold a second time for $500. Phones that are not resold within the city are often shipped to China through the black market, paired with a new sim card and sold on the street for a lower price, McFadden said.
People who have had their phone stolen should report it immediately to police and their carrier (the Federal Communication Commission’s website has information on how to contact the major carriers) so they will not be held liable for any future charges the thief rings up. The carrier may also be able to disable the phone and block access to personal information.
Part of the problem, however, is that stolen phones can be resubscribed to new service carriers. Bastian said the DA hopes to work with Apple, Samsung and other manufacturers to implement a “kill switch” that makes phones useless after they are stolen. This technology has already been implemented in the United Kingdom and Australia.
“They are responsible, somewhat like a tobacco company,” McFadden said of phone companies, referring to the negative impacts that consumer products can have on a society or individuals.
“You often have young defendants who are coming from low-income communities who are seeing the smartphone as a way to make a quick buck,” Bastian said. “You have the manufacturers and the carriers making a ton of money. Additionally…you have this whole system with victims being victimized and young defendants unnecessarily becoming felons.”
San Francisco police are providing Apple with a month’s worth of information about incidents in which victims of smartphone thefts have been intimidated or beaten for the devices. Mazzucco hopes to submit a letter to phone manufacturers and service providers on behalf of the commission, to make clear that the situation is urgent.
The police department’s next steps are twofold: educating the public to use caution with expensive technological devices in public, and pushing phone companies to help track and “brick” — disable — phones that have been stolen.
The increase in smartphone thefts as the devices have become more prevalent is not out of the ordinary, McFadden said. “A couple of years ago it was the Air Jordan shoes.”
In the 1990s, the popular Starter brand jackets inspired a comparable number of robberies, while in the ’80s it was car stereos, according to a presentation McFadden gave to a meeting of the San Francisco Police Commission.
Police also plan to use radio announcements and community outreach to encourage smartphone users to be responsible with their devices in public.
“Everyone needs a phone in some way,” Bastian said. “Everyone just so readily has them, it’s such an easy thing to take. It’s in everyone’s hands.”