Home A Thief Snatched My iPhone—And I Learned A Lot About Smartphone Crime

A Thief Snatched My iPhone—And I Learned A Lot About Smartphone Crime

A few weeks ago, I became a statistic. I was at a bus terminal in San Francisco when a stranger jumped out and grabbed my iPhone out of my hands.

My adrenaline-addled brain did everything wrong—things like chasing the thief, which could have gotten me injured, or worse. (Just thinking of it now makes me want to facepalm.) Fortunately I wasn’t hurt, apart from some bruises and scrapes earned during my ill-conceived pursuit.

I was very lucky, for so many reasons, the least of which is that I actually got my phone back. But the experience left me deeply rattled—and looking for answers.

I Am Far From Alone

See also: Some Jerk Stole My Camera—And Forced Me Out Of My Photography Rut

It was around 9 o’clock at night, and I was coming home late from work. Like so many people these days, I was “lost in my phone,” trying to fix my bleary eyes on the online Transbay bus schedule. It was dark out, but the open-air terminal was well-lit and other people were around, so I felt safe—so much so that I didn’t stay alert to my surroundings. That was mistake number one.

When the thief yanked my phone out of my hands, I didn’t consciously decide to go after him. I just found myself doing it. I took off with my bags flopping around me, screaming myself hoarse. I was using the phone when he took it, so it was unlocked and ready to give up its data. That was all I could think about as I chased him across the street, into a parking lot and behind a building.

Suddenly, I got a grip and realized where I was. This is not smart, I thought. Not smart at all.

What would I have done if he stopped and came toward me? What if he’d had friends? Or a weapon? Looking back, my rational brain can’t help but be angry at my instinctive, panicked past self. Just as the depth of my own stupidity dawned on me, my foot landed in a divot, wiping me out on the asphalt.

I have no excuse. ReadWrite even covered how to guard against smartphone theft, and there’s a whole section called “Don’t Be A Hero To Get Your Smartphone Back.” The advice is very sensible. Unfortunately, I was anything but that when it happened to me. 

I am far from alone. Cell phone thefts are rampant in the Bay Area. In San Francisco, more than half of thefts involve phones or tablet computers. SF residents reported 2,400 cellphones stolen in 2013, a 23 percent increase over 2012, according to the San Francisco Police Department. Across the bay, it’s even worse: In Oakland, more than 75 percent of reported thefts involve mobile devices. 

The startling numbers prompted San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon to join forces with New York Attorney General Eric R. Schneiderman to push a smartphone anti-theft law requiring built-in “kill switches.” Such features would erase and render stolen phones inoperable, theoretically eliminating criminals’ motivation. Originally rejected in April, the bill—SB 962—passed in the California state legislature last month.

The measure has been drawing mixed reactions from the tech community. “Most manufacturers think it’s an overblown problem,” Roger Entert, analyst for market-research firm Recon Analytics in Boston, told Consumer Reports

It would be easier to make that case if smartphone theft was just a local problem in the high-tech Bay Area. It’s not. According to Consumer Reports, more than 3 million Americans were victims of smartphone theft in 2013, up from 1.6 million the year before. It’s a scourge in cities from New York and Washington, D.C. to London and beyond.

The issue has reached epidemic proportions. That might explain why people stepped in to help me. Maybe they were sick and tired of seeing this street crime and wanted to take a stand. Maybe the same thing happened to them or their loved ones. Whatever their reasons, several men suddenly showed up on the scene.

While working in the dock area at a nearby building, they heard my screams and saw the thug fly past. So they jumped in and gave chase. I couldn’t believe it. I looked up to see my smartphone thief run out the left exit with a pack of dockworkers streaming after him.

A Just Response?

Once again, it was lucky that no one got hurt. The Federal Communications Commission revealed that 40 percent of thefts in major American cities involve cellphones, and mobile devices are the objective in nearly one in three robberies.

A few years ago, a Bay Area friend of mine was injured when a car-driving thief grabbed his phone and floored it. My friend’s arm got caught on the car somehow, and the vehicle wound up dragging him several feet. Now he has nerve damage along his whole right arm. Other victims have been killed for their smartphones. But the major phone makers and cellular carriers just don’t seem to care.

Lawmakers, however, want to make them care. After first meeting resistance by the major U.S. cellular carriers, the FCC and law enforcement authorities compelled them to share lists of serial numbers from stolen phones. End result: A new policy is in the works for later this year that should render stolen phones inoperable on those networks, at least once they’re reported.

Of course, the measure doesn’t extend to overseas networks, where many of these devices often wind up. But a kill switch like the one that California legislators want could close that loophole.

The security feature in SB 962, as proposed, would hobble the device regardless of network. It sounds like an effective plan. And yet several smartphone makers, as well as the four major U.S. carriers and wireless industry association CTIA, oppose the mandate. The carriers claim it would give hackers another plaything. The tech companies said that jumping through hoops to meet state-level regulations will inhibit innovation. No one stated the obvious—that it would also probably undercut the vast profits these companies could make from replacement devices.

The opponents came up with another idea: the Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment. According to the pact, the companies—including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, HTC, Nokia, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint—would make free anti-theft tools available to users, either preloaded or as a downloadable. Samsung has already announced new anti-theft features for its Galaxy S5 smartphone. And Apple plans to beef up its “Find My iPhone” security feature in its mobile software, which already boasts device tracking and remote-wipe features for users who activate them.

It’s close, but not quite the same as what state legislators have in mind—which is a kill switch that’s built in and primed by default. These measures leave it up to users to download or activate the features. The problem is that people don’t usually take extra care to safeguard themselves. Data from Consumer Reports revealed that a minority of people take even basic precautions such as:

  • Setting a screen lock with a 4-digit pin (36 percent)
  • Backing up data to a computer or online (29 percent)
  • Installing software that can locate the phone (22 percent)
  • Installing an antivirus app (14 percent)
  • Using a PIN longer than 4 digits, a password, or unlock pattern (11 percent)
  • Installing software that can erase the contents of the smart phone (8 percent)
  • Using security features other than screen lock (e.g. encryption) (7 percent)

Those who took none of these security measures? Thirty-four percent.

Apple—as creator of the most highly prized thief bait—beefed up “Find My iPhone,” the service that allows people to track and remote-wipe lost or stolen iOS devices. The service doesn’t work when the phone has no power, so the next version of its iPhone software will tackle that issue with a “Send Last Location” feature.

That option, included in Apple’s forthcoming iOS 8, will beam the phone’s last location to Apple (via iCloud) just before the battery runs out—assuming, of course, it can find a signal. Though not a kill switch, it’s better than nothing. At least it may be useful in some cases for device-tracking purposes.

Tracking a phone is one thing; doing something with the information is another. Police are overrun with smartphone thefts, so they’re hard pressed to chase down every lead—particularly in snatch-and-run cases like mine. Officers later told me that if the thief had hit me or threatened violence, the act would have made it a robbery—a more serious crime. That would have demanded a certain level of police response.

As it was, a guy who just snatched my iPhone and ran would have ranked pretty low. And that’s precisely why such snatch-and-runs are so frequent. They’re easy compared to more serious crime. Thieves have learned how to walk right up to that line without stepping over it and drawing a real police response.

This leads some folks to take smartphone recovery into their own hands. Because they can track their devices, they wind up on criminals’ doorsteps demanding their device back. But this is a dangerous path to tread, and police highly discourage it. They, along with legislators in California and New York, want the kill switch instead. 

What’s In It For Them

If the theft taught me one thing, it’s that when I’m freaked out, I become completely irrational.

Seeing the dock workers return, exhausted and empty-handed, I slumped on the curb and decided to compound my dumb actions: Shaking and upset, I pulled out my laptop to remote-wipe my phone. As if I hadn’t had enough stolen from me. Why not pull out my expensive computer on the street as well? At that point, common sense hadn’t just flown out the window—it launched into outerspace.

And for what? The police would later tell me that it was pointless anyway. Crooks don’t want your data, they said. They want your device so they can make some quick cash. And it’s easy, thanks to gadget recycling kiosks like EcoATM.

That was likely where my thief was heading; San Francisco’s Westfield Centre has one of these cash-for-gadgets terminals installed. The machine, which looks like a banking machine, accepts devices like smartphones and spits out cash in return. The idea is to make gadget recycling more convenient.

Last year, the startup was acquired by Outerwall (best known for Coinstar and Redbox terminals) for $350 million, giving it some real backing to expand even further out from its base of 900 machines nationwide. Most recently, it widened its footprint in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with 16 additional kiosks, for a total of 32 in the region.

To discourage criminals, each machine scans a driver’s license or other form of ID and takes a photo and a fingerprint, which are all sent in real time to a person tasked with checking them. The system also records the serial or IMEI (International Mobile Station Equipment Identity) number of the device, and holds the gadget for 30 days “in the rare case that a stolen phone does make its way into our kiosk,” the EcoATM website states.

It sounds very thorough and comprehensive. Too bad it doesn’t always work.

That’s what police in EcoATM’s home of San Diego discovered, and there are other cases in places like Houston, San Antonio and Atlanta. Turns out, some thieves just don’t care about the security measures. Or they have ways of getting around them, like using stolen IDs.

The company claims that only 1 of every 1,500 phones it accepts is lost or stolen. But law enforcement just doesn’t buy it: “No way,” San Francisco Police Capt. Jason Cherniss told SFGate. “They missed a word in there, didn’t they? Don’t they mean ‘reported’ stolen?” That’s a key distinction. As many as 30 to 40 percent of smartphone thefts may go unreported.

For Oakland City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, the terminals don’t do enough to deter theft. “There are some minimal security things that the companies might tell you about a thumb print. But all of that is after the fact. It’s retroactive, it does not stop the crime,” she told San Francisco TV station KTVU. McElhaney is trying to block EcoATMs and similar terminals from Oakland, where cellphone theft is already rampant.

EcoATM wants to fight these bad impressions any way it can—including emphasizing its law enforcement outreach initiatives. To help build those relationships, the company enlisted help of a retired police chief from New Jersey and New York, as well as one from San Diego.

The kiosks do make it easier for some victims to recover phones turned in there. But it looks like the same machines create an irresistible temptation for criminals in the first place.

All’s Well That Ends Well

See also: How To Get Smart About Smartphone Theft

Since the incident, I’ve been nervous about pulling my device out in public. I feel anxious. Even when I call an Uber or Lyft, I hesitate to take my phone out to check the alert.

These are the days when I’m most grateful for wearable technology. Between the smartwatch on my wrist and my wireless earbuds, I can view notifications, answer calls and even respond to texts (thanks, Siri!) without ever taking my device out of my pocket.

I’m also grateful for something else: This story actually has a happy ending, thanks to a minor miracle the night of the theft. Turns out, a homeless kid heard me yelling that night and chased after the criminal, outrunning even the dock workers. He got close enough to scare the thief, who panicked and dropped my phone. The kid picked it up and walked it back to me. “I was in track back in high school,” he said. “There was no way he was going to outrun me.”

It’s possible he was in on the crime, perhaps as an accomplice of some sort. But he seemed to be a popular personality around the area, one that the dock workers knew and maintained a rapport with. As they patted him on the back, I let go of any suspicions I had—mostly because, in that moment, I really needed to believe there are kind, decent people out there. I asked if he had somewhere to go, even a shelter of some sort. He didn’t. So I pressed some cash in his hand, and the gesture made him speechless for a moment. He thanked me. Then he was gone. 

As I replay the events of that evening, I become more convinced of one thing: The solution to this tech theft problem doesn’t lie in technology, at least not right now. It rests with people. Savvy people, who watch their surroundings and don’t make themselves a target. Kind people who help others. And honest people who, even in the worst circumstances, can surprise you.

Images by Flickr users David Lytle (feature image), West Midlands Police (stolen phones), Scott Davidson (police car) and *sax (thief); EcoATM image courtesy of EcoATM

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