On Feb. 27 in the middle of the afternoon, a 16-year-old girl was walking through San Francisco's Mission District when she was ordered at gunpoint to hand over her cellphone. The robbery was one of 10 serious crimes in the city that day, and they all involved cellphones. Three were stolen at gunpoint, three at knifepoint, and four through brute force.
Incidents of cellphone theft have been rising for several years and are fast becoming an epidemic. IDG News Service collected data on serious crimes in San Francisco from November to April and recorded 579 thefts of cellphones or tablets, accounting for 41 percent of all serious crime. On several days, like Feb. 27, the only serious crime in the city was cellphone thefts. (See the interactive map with the details of these thefts.)
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In just over half the incidents, victims were punched, kicked, or otherwise physically intimidated for their phones, and in a quarter of robberies, users were threatened with guns or knives.
The cellphone crime wave spans the nation
This isn't just happing in tech-loving San Francisco, either. The picture is similar across the United States.
In Washington, D.C., cellphone thefts account for 40 percent of robberies, while in New York City, they make up more than half of all street crime. There are no hard numbers on which phones are most popular, but those most in demand by thieves appear to be those most in demand by users: iPhones.
It's easy to see why the thefts are so rampant. Criminals can quickly turn stolen phones into several hundred dollars in cash, and phone users are often easy targets as they walk down the street engrossed in the screen and oblivious to their surroundings.
It shouldn't be this way. With built-in satellite positioning and reliance on a network connection, it should be easier to track them down. So why is theft still such a problem?
A big reason is that, until recently, there had been little to stop someone using a stolen cellphone. Carriers quickly suspend phone lines to avoid thieves running up high charges, but the phone itself could be resold and reused. It was and still is easy with modern smartphones that accept SIM cards, which were introduced to allow legitimate users to switch phones easily.
What the carriers are doing to make theft less profitable
Reacting to pressure from law enforcement and regulators, the United States' largest cellphone carriers agreed early last year to establish a database of stolen cellphones. The database blocks the IMEI (international mobile equipment identity) number, a unique ID in the cellphone akin to a car's VIN (vehicle identification number). The number is transmitted to the cellular network when the phone connects and remains with the phone no matter what SIM card is inserted.