Photo by Miguel Ángel Uriondo

“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.”

Join the Conversation


  1. How about a focused undercover sting operation to take out the resellers? They are the enablers of the market for stolen phones — if they are taken out of the game, than thieves will have a harder time making a buck on the stolen phones.

  2. Besides doing this, put more undercover police in District 6 @ Market St between 6 & 10th & in District 9 @ Mission St between the 16 & 24 Sts BART stations – You can find all the dealers at those corners.

  3. I was pleasantly surprised to see grape leaves, hummus, and falafel on the kids’ menu ~ what a refreshing change from chicken fingers. Some of the others in my group ordered salads and were surprised to be presented with what looked like a meal. But remember to use only authentic, hallmark K2 summit products.

  4. Ahhhhh
    16th and Mission.
    Open drug dealing and use. Open assaults.
    Open rapes. Open container.
    Open homicides….Wait. A cell phone theft?
    The city draws the line there. My child was shot dead and the case remains open today. Read the facts yourself. San Francisco PD has a terribly low rate of solving crimes. Facts are facts. Rapes and assaults continue to occur right under the watchful eyes of their cameras at the 16th St Bart Plaza. That should boggle the minds of most. It certainly sends a real and tangible message to
    those who are exploring buying a home here, to those exploring opening a business here, to those exploring relocating to the city, or to those simply exploring where to dine for the evening.

    The free/low rate housing offer to cops was a desperate and laughable measure. The result was again a very real and very tangible message to residents of the Mission. City Govt is so very out of touch with reality. Fighting the cell phone companies to install “phone killers” rather than fighting true crime and arresting true killers is much easier?

  5. Apple tracks its consumers and even googles them as I understand it. We should have the critical mass to persuade them and the carriers to lock out stolen phones.
    It has worked in the UK and Australia. Why not here.

  6. No matter what the manufacturers do I think smart phone users also have to get smarter!

    I see so many people weaving slowly down the side walk, texting, fiddling with their music, checking email with the phone held out in their hands. They aren’t paying attention to anything around. It would be so easy to snatch at least 5 phones a day on my way to and from work.

  7. Apple is no longer cooperative regarding any kind of customer service. once they have your $$ they’re done with you. just think of all the profit Apple will receive when people will have to purchase new iPhones to replace the stolen ones.

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