They’re relatively small, expensive, and universally desired. That makes smartphones a prime target for thieves.
Earlier this week the Ohio Attorney General’s office announced six adults and two juveniles — all from the Dayton area — face felony charges for “smash and grab” break-ins at more than 60 cellphone stores in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Officials believe the group is responsible for $300,000 in thefts between April 2012 and this past January.
The arrests spotlight a growing problem as mobile traffic skyrockets: thefts of the devices that drive that traffic. According to the Federal Communications Commission, a mobile phone accounted for one out of every three items stolen in 2011; in larger cities, the rate may climb to 40 percent of reported thefts.
A 2012 Consumer Reports survey estimated 1.6 million phones were stolen from Americans that year.
“They knew where everything was. They only stole the expensive ones,” said Mohamed Redha, owner of Infinite Wireless, whose Miamisburg store was one of the 60 that reported getting hit. Redha’s store in January had60 smartphones and two laptops stolen, he said.
Redha said he grew wary of a purported customer the day before the break-in. The woman examined the store interior and inquired about how many iPhones Redha stocked. He awoke about 4 a.m. the next morning and decided to check in on the store’s surveillance camera from home. His suspicion was confirmed when the monitor showed a Miamisburg officer at the store’s shattered glass door. About the same time he got a call from his alarm company.
“There were three of them. They were in and out in 30 seconds,” he said.
Lt. Eric Johnson of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office, the lead department on the case, said the crimes took place so quickly that even a good, functioning alarm system was no deterrent.
“A lot of these places had alarm systems. But they could be in and out quicker than we could ever get the call and dispatched out to the scene,” Johnson said. “Having a really good, working video surveillance system — that was pivotal in really turning the tide on this investigation.”
Johnson said breaks in the cases starting coming when Warren County Sheriff’s Det. Jerry Nissengger brought in other departments to compare video. The multi-state investigation ultimately included 56 local jurisdictions along with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
“There were also some items that were very distinctive to these groups we kept seeing pop up on the videos,” Johnson said. “So we knew we were dealing with the same group of individuals.”
He said investigators had little to no ability to track the stolen phones.
“They were pretty smart in figuring out how to hide them from us,” he said.
The resale market for stolen smartphones is high, particularly overseas. “A phone may go for $200, $300, $400 around here, but there are places where you can get double that for those phones,” Johnson said.
Last year, California officials arrested two individuals accused of buying stolen smartphones for resale in Hong Kong where iPhones reportedly fetch up to $2,000. California authorities say the scheme netted $4 million in less than a year.
Redha said he now removes all the company’s stock from display cases when he leaves for the day. Another option — bars over the windows — was considered but rejected. Redha worries about the image it would project to customers.
Bob Bowman, coordinator of the Investigating Retail Organized Crime Task Force, said nothing short of a large safe would have slowed down the Dayton-based ring. Landlords don’t always permit storefront covers and bars over doors and windows, he said.
A handful of state legislatures, most recently New York, have moved to require an anti-theft “kill switch” that would make a mobile phone inoperable. The industry has so far opposed such legislation, however, because of the costs involved for replacement phones.
The industry does support a national Mobile Device Deterrence Act introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York. The bill seeks a five-year sentence for those who tamper with stolen phone ID numbers. Schumer was also instrumental in setting up a national stolen cell phone database administered by the FCC and major cell phone carriers.
Bowman said stopping cellphone theft rings can put a big dent in local crime by getting the perpetrators off the street. But, he said, “It’s not unlike the drug trafficking business where there are always a few other people willing to step up and take their place.”
Where local break-ins occurred
Here’s a list submitted by the Ohio Attorney General’s office of robberies that are part of this investigation.
Aug. 29, 2012: Verizon Wireless, 2755 Fairfield Commons, Beavercreek.
Oct. 8, 2012: Verizon Wireless, 2799 Miamisburg-Centerville Road, Miami Twp.
April 2, 2013: Verizon Wireless, 40 South Progress Drive, Xenia.
May 4, 2013: Verizon Wireless, 7787 Cox Lane, West Chester Twp.
Sept. 21, 2013: Verizon Wireless, 8465 Mason-Montgomery Road, Mason.
Oct. 3, 2013: Verizon Wireless, 8465 Mason-Montgomery Road, Mason.
Oct. 18, 2013: Verizon Wireless, 3291 Heritage Green Drive, Monroe.
Dec. 29, 2013: Area Wireless, 2262 Michigan St., Sidney.
Dec. 29 2013: Verizon Wireless, 775 W. Market St., Troy.
Dec. 29, 2013: R&G Sound/Verizon, 1701 Industrial Drive, Celina.
Jan. 18, 2014: Verizon Wireless, 17 Greene Blvd., Beavercreek.
Jan. 24, 2014: Infinite Wireless, 55 S. Springboro Pike, Miamisburg.
Jan. 27, 2014: T-Mobile, 2260 N. Fiarfield Road, Suite D, Beavercreek.
Jan. 31, 2014: T-Mobile, 1147 Brown St., Dayton.