Rampant cell phone thefts prompt legislation, anger

Cell phone thefts among fastest-growing crimes in nation.

A pizza delivery driver was attacked in south Dayton by a group of teenagers who stole his iPhone.

A jogger in north Dayton was robbed of his cell phone and a small amount of cash at gunpoint.

Thieves broke into a Verizon Wireless store in Kettering and stole mobile phones and other electronics.

Cell phone theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes nationwide, and cell phones were stolen in about one-quarter of the robberies in Dayton so far this year, according to data obtained by the Dayton Daily News.

Mobile phones often are among the most valuable possessions people own and carry around, and criminals often can turn a stolen phone into quick cash.

To combat the crime, wireless providers are creating a database of stolen cell phone identification numbers to prevent criminals from reactivating the devices on their networks.

Technology can also help some victims of cell phone theft track the stolen devices, disable them and erase any personal information.

An Ohio lawmaker has proposed increasing the penalty for stealing smart phones and other electronic devices that contain personal and business information.

But the black market for stolen cell phones is large and vibrant, police said.

Many used phones that are sold online have “bad” electronic serial numbers, which is often a sign the phones were stolen, according to police.

“There are a lot of stores out there that can activate a phone and swap out the (subscriber identity module) card,” said Dayton police Lt. Wendy Stiver. “There is no real (effective) system in place to check the serial numbers.”

Handheld computers

Cell phones have become an indispensable part of modern life for many Ohioans, often serving both business and social purposes.

Almost 90 percent of Americans own a cell phone, and almost half own a smartphone, according to a March 2012 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Basic mobile phones can be relatively cheap to manufacture and purchase, and therefore not a high-demand item for thieves.

But smartphones essentially are handheld computers with high-tech functions and capabilities, such as taking photographs, surfing the Internet and playing movies, games and music.

Smartphones often cost between $400 to $800 to purchase upfront. But cellular providers usually subsidize the initial price of the phones, and customers cover the cost of the equipment over the lifetime of their service contracts.

The resale value of smartphones varies, based on brand, model and condition. But used phones often fetch hundreds of dollars when sold online — pure profit for those who obtained the phone illegally.

About 40 percent of robberies in major cities — including New York City and Washington, D.C. — involve cell phones and other small electronic devices, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

In Dayton, police have have recorded about 183 robberies since Jan. 1, and in 42 cases the stolen merchandise involved cell phones, according to police data.

People have been robbed for their phones at parks, bus stops, stores and outside their homes, police reports show. Robbers have snatched phones from children, elderly residents and even family members.

Criminals who rob strangers and break into homes and vehicles are not necessarily looking to steal cell phones specifically, police said. But they usually purloin the devices because of their resale value.

“These phones cost pretty much the same or more as a laptop computer,” said Dayton police Lt. Stiver. “You’ve got to protect them.”

‘It was horrible’

Police reports document the terrifying nature of some of the thefts.

On Jan. 2, Eleanore Sharkey, 25, of Temperance, Mich., was leaving the Trolly Stop in the Oregon District with her boyfriend when a man approached the couple on Clay Street and pointed a shotgun at them.

The gunman snatched Sharkey’s purse and her boyfriend’s wallet. Sharkey’s iPhone was inside the purse.

Police tracked the phone using an application Sharkey had downloaded but they were unable to determine the precise location of the device. Police have not yet made any arrests in the case.

Sharkey said her insurance company covered the cost of replacing her purse and some beauty products contained inside. But she was forced to shell out hundreds of dollars to replace and upgrade her phone, which was not insured.

“It was horrible,” Sharkey said. “It ended up costing me a good $700 to replace my iPhone.”

Sharkey said she was disturbed by the thought of some criminal having access to the personal information stored on her phone. But she was able to get her personal information on the iPhone erased remotely, and service was suspended when she reported the phone stolen to her carrier, Verizon. The company also put the phone’s electronic serial number on an internal database of lost and stolen phones, which means the carrier will not reactive it.

“When you do that, it basically becomes a piece of metal,” Sharkey said. “The only person who can access it is myself.”

Cellular providers can remotely disable their mobile phones and block people from using them.

Sprint, for instance, places a lost or stolen restriction on the customer’s account, which blocks all voice, text and data use, said Crystal Davis, spokeswoman with Sprint Nextel.

“If the lost or stolen device is replaced or the service is discontinued, its corresponding and distinct (electronic serial number) or (International Mobile Station Equipment Identity) code is placed on Sprint’s lost/stolen file which prevents it from being reactivated,”she said.

Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile and some other carriers maintain internal lists of identification numbers of mobile phones and some tablets that have been reported lost or stolen. The carriers also are creating a central database that will allow the companies to share information to prevent thieves from activating a stolen phone on a different carrier. Different types of mobile phones have different types of identification systems.

But not all carriers will participate in “blacklist” programs. Currently, people who steal phones can install new software on the phones and reactivate them through other carriers, officials said. Some alter the identification numbers.

The newspaper found dozens of online listings for cell phones with “bad” electronic serial numbers from sellers in the Dayton region. The ads were posted on websites including Craigslist, eBay and Backpage.com.

Sometimes, phones are placed on carriers’ “blacklists” because the owners failed to pay a bill or the devices were reported lost.

But phones with “bad” serial numbers may be stolen, and the devices often are sold for parts, said Laura Merritt, Verizon spokeswoman.

“These devices should not be for sale and consumers should absolutely not purchase them,” said CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade association representing the wireless communications industry.

People whose phones are lost or stolen are vulnerable to identity theft and other financial crimes. Phones often hold store enormous amounts of information on their mobile phones and other electronic devices, such as personal and business emails, and sensitive health and banking information.

Stiffer penalties sought

Ohio Sen. Jim Hughes, R-Columbus, is sponsoring Senate Bill 63, which seeks to make it a felony offense to steal a cell phone, computer, laptop or tablet.

Theft of items worth less than $1,000 is generally a misdemeanor offense in Ohio.

It is unclear whether creating more serious penalties for cell phone theft can help stem the rise of the activity.

But Hughes previously said stiffer penalties will make law enforcement more focused on the crime.

“It’s just one of the new crimes that is overtaking everything,” he said.

Consumers can better protect against cell phone theft by being mindful and not putting the devices down when out at restaurants, bars, coffee shops or other public areas. Phones should not be left in cars or other unguarded places.

Consumers can download apps to help locate lost or stolen devices. The apps can also lock the phones and erase personal contacts and other data. Some apps will take stealth photos of anyone who tries to unlock the phones, and then will e-mail the pictures to the phone’s owner.

Consumers are encouraged to lock their phones and use uncommon password codes to prevent unwanted intrusion.

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