By Gregory B. Hladky
5:25 PM EDT, July 16, 2013
She was sitting quietly on a Connecticut Transit bus in Hamden last year, talking on her cell.
A man got up as the bus pulled up to a stop. As he passed, he snatched the phone from the woman's hand and jumped off just before the bus pulled away from the curb. All the victim could do was look around and raise her hands in disbelief.
The crime was captured on a security camera and released by local police, becoming one of scores of recordings available on the Internet showing how widespread the cellphone-theft problem has become. It's a plague that seems to be everywhere.
In May, Stamford cops caught two dudes on bicycles who were riding down sidewalks and ripping phones from people's hands as they passed. In Fairfield, kids at the Wakeman Boys and Girls Club had at least six iPhones stolen this year. Two Cromwell High School students were arrested for phone theft, also in May. And a security camera at a Darien car dealership in April caught an employee making off with a customer's cell.
By some estimates, one third of all robberies in the U.S. now involve cellphones, and the numbers keep rising. That would translate to more than 1,230 stolen cells in Connecticut, using figures from the latest state crime report available.
Something like 1.6 million Americans had their cells ripped off last year, according to one California official's estimate.
"It's a very large and growing problem," says Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen. "It's a problem in Connecticut, it's a problem in New York, in California and in Missouri," he adds, noting that industry analysts believe thefts are costing consumers as much as $30 billion a year.
Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal justice adviser, says some Connecticut municipalities believe that up to half of all robberies in their communities involve cellphones and iPads and other handheld electronics.
New York officials estimated that cellphone thefts had risen by 40 percent in recent years. (Stealing iPhones and iPads has become so common that NY cops now call it "Apple picking," according to the Associated Press.) In San Francisco, more than 50 percent of all thefts are cell-related, according to experts.
Connecticut State Police say they don't keep separate statistics on cell thefts in this state. A New Haven city official says cellphones have been involved in about 32 percent of all robberies in the city in the past couple of years, averaging something like 200 stolen cellphones a year.
Cell thefts have become an international business. The Huffington Post has reported that cells stolen in this country can end up in the hands of buyers on the other side of the globe.
"Most of [the robbers] are just grabbing the cells out of people's hands," says Lawlor. "There's no violence or weapons involved."
The sad part is that not all cell robberies are so mild. People have been killed or badly injured by thieves determined to grab a phone.
Jepsen is joining other attorneys general from around the country to push cellphone manufacturers and service providers to create a useable "kill switch" system that would make stolen cells virtually useless.
There are security locks on many phones now, but lots of cell owners either don't know about them or don't bother to use them. Such locks have also been relatively easy for knowledgeable thieves and hackers to bypass.
Until recently, there hasn't been much incentive for manufacturers or providers to do much of anything about the problem. After all, if you lose your cell to a thief, all you're going to do is go out and buy a new one. And that thief will need a service provider as well.
Public pressure has been building. Officials in several states have taken the cell industry to task for failing to come up with better solutions, and the cell big shots have begun to take notice.
Apple last month announced a new iPhone security feature that company officials insist will go a long way toward deterring cell thefts.
The new "activation lock" feature is part of Apple's latest smartphone software, which is due to be released this fall. Company officials say it's supposed to make an iPhone inoperable when a thief tries to shut off another program for locating a lost cell but doesn't have the correct password.
"We think it's going to be a really powerful theft deterrent," was the claim of Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering.
Other manufacturers and providers like Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Verizon have all pledged to work to curb the cell theft epidemic.
Officials like Jepsen and Lawlor and their counterparts in other states are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
"The sooner it happens, the better," says Lawlor. He says it's clear there should be a technological solution to the problem.
Critics charge that the cell industry has been ignoring the problem for years.
Australia has for years had a security system that uses what amounts to an electronic fingerprint for every cell sold in that country, which allows it to be shut down and service denied if it's stolen. In 2011, Australian officials estimated it had cut cell thefts by at least 25 percent.
The U.S. cell industry has recently started creating its own stolen cell databases. (Several years ago, CTIA, the industry's trade association, insisted the Australian system wouldn't work well because thieves could overwrite the security numbers and the databases were cumbersome and difficult to maintain.)
Another difficulty with the stolen-cell database system is that it apparently won't work outside the U.S., and many stolen smartphones these days are being shipped overseas.
A large part of the problem, says Lawlor, is that cells have become so universal and people are so accustomed to using them all the time no matter where they are or what they're doing.
"If you're walking down the street, talking on your cell, not paying attention to what's going on around you, it's like an invitation," Lawlor points out. "You become a very tempting target."
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