Rise in Cell Phone Theft Spurs Hearing
As cellphone thefts continue to surge citywide, Supervisor Scott Wiener convened a hearing and heard from city officials who said they are aware of the "alarming" rise in robberies but presented limited options to deter the frequency of what is sometimes called Apple picking because the company’s iPhones are such a popular target.
"It seems like everywhere I go, every community meeting I go to, people are talking about this," Wiener said. "They know someone or know someone who knows someone who’s been robbed and feel a high level of concern."
The February 7 hearing included members of the Board of Supervisors’ City Operations and Neighborhood Services and Public Safety committees and officials from the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, the San Francisco Police Department, and the district attorney’s office. Law enforcement officials pointed to existing strategies to combat the rise of smartphone theft but did not present any new strategies to identify or to prosecute the thieves who officials say are professional and working largely unorganized.
"We need to employ a prevention strategy," Wiener said, adding that he is interested in a public awareness program that highlights the vulnerability of using smartphones in public.
Public outcry regarding a rise of cellphone theft in particular has resonated citywide. According to a police department CompStat report, robberies have increased 11 percent overall since 2011, and police say 40 to 50 percent of these crimes involve cellphone theft.
On the city’s Muni lines, last year’s holiday season between October and November witnessed a jump of 70 percent in theft compared to the year prior, the report noted, 276 cases were reported in 2012, compared to 163 cases in 2011.
The trend is nationwide. The Federal Communications Commission reported last year that 38 percent of thefts in Washington, D.C. and 40 percent in New York City were cellphone-related.
Officials say thieves look to snatch devices from unsuspecting and distracted victims then turn around and sell them for several hundred dollars. Some of the phones are sold in hand-to-hand transactions or sometimes overseas.
Particular worry of crime in the Castro and Bernal Heights districts culminated in community meetings where upset members of the public sought more police intervention.
Tracking stolen phones
The major cellphone carriers, Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, introduced a database last year initiated by the FCC, allowing customers to report the theft of their phone, which is then added to a database to prevent it from being re-appropriated.