"Oh, you should talk to my husband," the woman said. "He works for BART."

She summoned a man whose face resembled photographs Alex had uncovered doing property searches. He was Victor du Long: suburban homeowner, family man, BART cop. Du Long gingerly addressed Alex, clutching the purloined phone in one hand. Even then, the officer seemed like an improbable culprit.

Smartphone theft is the consummate crime of opportunity, particularly in a society saturated by modern gadgetry. Glance up the next time you're riding a BART train or sitting in the back of a Muni bus: Dozens of screens aglow as scores of thumbs peck at tiny keyboards. We obsessively check email and plink tech messages to friends; we walk down busy retail corridors with phones clasped to our ears or dangling from our palms. If you're a thief looking to make a quick payday, this city's downtown streets are your oyster.

And technology hasn't just altered human behavior; it's also changed the nature of crime. It's created a world in which we handle commerce electronically, obviating the need to keep wads of cash in our pockets. Because people use cellphones to tell time, they no longer wear watches. Wallets, which now only serve to hold credit cards and IDs, have become essentially worthless to anyone except the owner; the average person's most valuable effect is his smartphone.

So, the same items that tempt thieves also make us oblivious to them watching us. And it exposes us to other forms of crime, as well: In October, smartphone-absorbed Muni commuters failed to notice a gunman until after he'd shot 20-year-old Justin Valdez. The incident drew media scorn — and a whole litany of think-pieces bemoaning the shallowness of society. If there was a lesson to be learned, though, it was that anyone on that train could have been easy prey.

"You walk down Market Street, and so many people are just checked out, on the phone," Capt. Cherniss says. For a thief looking to make a quick hit, it's the perfect storm of inattention and enticement.

Thus, smartphone theft has ballooned in tech-drenched San Francisco, where, according to District Attorney George Gascón, it now accounts for at least 50 percent of all robberies (and 75 percent of robberies in Oakland). It's become so prevalent as to garner its own nickname among cops — "Apple picking" — because handheld devices are low-hanging fruit.

And it's left police officers powerless to help.

"[Once] you take six reports on this, it becomes routine," one cop says. Yet, he acknowledges, filing reports is usually an officer's only recourse. Phone thefts are hard to investigate because they happen so quickly, and because they kill the victim's line of communication — to police, or anyone else. And most departments lack the resources to solve these crimes. SFPD has all but eviscerated its plain-clothed forces and its narcotics division over the last four years, leaving a backlog of unresolved cases. It's only fitting that criminals would get the perception SFPD had let its guard down — much like the oblivious gadget-users on Market Street.

Add to that a 2011 state law that increased the threshold for grand theft from $400 to $950 — which meant that smartphone robberies could be reclassified as misdemeanors. That allowed SFPD to tout its massive reduction in felony arrests, which plummeted from 20,954 in 2002 to 8,911 nine years later when the law was passed — even while Apple-picking was on the rise.

Ironically, state Sen. Mark Leno, who is currently pushing a bill to force smartphone companies to install better theft-prevention technology, also voted for the 2011 threshold law. The impetus was to unclog California's prison system and adjust for inflation, Leno says, adding that "smartphone theft was not in our consciousness at the time."

Thus, the scourge continued, the thieves went mostly unpunished, and lawmakers continued to shunt the burden. Until they couldn't.

In the fall of 2012, Gascón was rattled.

Felony arrests were down, petty crime was up. Smartphones were being snatched out of hands or plucked from pockets in downtown San Francisco, and city officials had yet to find a solution. Gascón had turned the issue into a cause célèbre, reciting crime statistics, hatching plans with other lawmakers, and entreating the telecom companies for help.

But no one in the industry was listening.

Gascón began his crusade after latching onto a simple but promising idea: kill-switches. The easiest way to stamp out street robberies was to take away the payoff, the DA thought. And companies could do that by installing preventative technology — the so-called "kill-switch" — to disable a stolen device, and keep it from being reactivated. That way, a thief would have no incentive to rip it off in the first place.

It seemed like a worthy cause, and only a niggling hardship for smartphone titans like Apple and Samsung. And they already had the capability, Gascón and his colleagues thought. Britain had been flagging stolen phones on a national database for years; U.S. companies, with their superior engineering and surfeit of resources, could certainly do much better.

Apple confirmed as much in 2010, when it unveiled a feature called "Alert & Respond," which uses real-time geo-tracking to locate stolen devices. The iPhone used to showcase the product was allegedly stolen, in SOMA, by a hapless robber named Horatio Toure. He was apprehended within 10 minutes. The story of "the world's unluckiest thief" stealing "the world's most trackable iPhone" quickly became international news.

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14 comments
mikerice0
mikerice0

"The only solution, Leno and Gascón argue, is to have kill-switches hardwired so that no network can reactivate a stolen device — no matter where it goes, it's useless."  Fine so far, Gentleman.  But having gone this drastic distance, what will it take for a consumer to reactivate this expensive piece of  hardware/software? An entire bureaucracy run by someone, at some expense, that's what. "Hardwired" above is just a writer's expression suggesting difficulty in reactivating.The writer means the fix is so severe, so un-hackable, that it will take some doing to restore life to the smartphone.  All this costs money.  Who's going to pay the costs?  The consumer is, that's who!  I've read 4 news stories about smartphone theft so far.  It seems as though most theft outside of major cities is small time and unorganized.  The "Find My IPhone App" sounds like a more cost conscious and workable solution to me.  Taxpayers are saddles with 911, a solution that seemed a simple right answer at one time.  911 has mushroomed into a multibillion dollar nationwide bureaucracy to solve a problem speed dialers in phones could have handled nicely, thank you.

dandelion
dandelion

I worked for AT&T for three years.  I was there the day the first iPhone launched.  After that day, 90% of my work consisted of fielding calls from people regarding stolen phones.  I spoke to people who were mugged, robbed, held at gun point and beaten - all for iPhones.  All day long, every day.  I spoke to people who had their iPhones stolen, then the junkies who stole the phones then held the phones "ransom" demanding the rightful owners pay for phones to be returned.  I heard these stories all day long.  All day, every day.


AT&T, the other carriers and Apple have BLOOD on their hands.  They could have stopped this from happening on day one of the launch, but they didn't.  Because that blood is GREEN.


What is the first thing you want to do after your iPhone goes missing?  Well, you want a new one of course.  


Parents: I have a special message for you:


1) Your child does not NEED an iPhone.  Oh, your child thinks they need an iPhone, but guess what, they do not.  


2) When you give your child an iPhone, in addition to unmonitored internet access, you give your child a FANTASTIC sense of entitlement.


3) When you give your child an iPhone (or other smartphone / tablet), there is an almost 100% chance that the device will be lost, stolen or damaged in the first year.  I know.  I am the one who listened to all those parents crying about the phone stolen at the track meet, stolen out of the band room, stolen at gun point.  I listened while parents told me how their child was beat up for their iPhone.  I listened while parents told me that their daughter's "best friend" stole the iPhone.  I listened while the parents complained about how the child cracked the screen, dropped it in the toilet, went swimming in the ocean with their iPhone.


Then I listened to the parent have a fit when I told them iPhone number two would cost full price.  Then I placed the order for the parent when they paid full price for iPhone number two.


My son got his first phone this year.  He got an old school slider.  He stood in Best Buy and cried, told me it was terrible that he couldn't get an iPhone.  That was a couple of months ago.  He's doing ok today.  No major psychological trauma from being forced to carrying around a piece of crap phone.  Massive sense of entitlement... under control.  I've got no fear he will be robbed or beaten for his slider.  When he loses it or breaks it, he will be able to cough up $40 of allowance money to replace it.  

Jesus Valencia
Jesus Valencia

That's capitalism for Yaaa , buy , sell , trade , STEAL!!!!

rob035
rob035

another BAD BART COP !

matters
matters

Fascinating article. I will be keeping my phone out of sight on the streets and on public trans.

Thank you!

njbartlett
njbartlett

"Britain had been flagging stolen phones on a national database for years; U.S. companies, with their superior engineering and surfeit of resources, could certainly do much better."

Well that's kind of insulting.

savagejunglebeast
savagejunglebeast

My daughter was robbed at gunpoint, on the way to school at 18th and Noe. We recovered her iPhone because we had "find my iPhone" installed, and the cops arrested a random bag man at the 16th Street BART station. Now that my daughter knows that we can track her location, she's turned "find my iPhone" off.

aliasetc
aliasetc topcommenter

Australia will brick a stolen phone making it useless. Here in the good old USA the cellular companies have bribed and paid off to prevent such laws in the name of profit.

tvhandy
tvhandy

I just had my iPhone 5s stolen sometime Monday morning from a hotel room my friends and I were sharing in Palm Springs for Coachella. As soon as I discovered the phone missing, I immediately opened up the Find My iPhone app on my brother's phone to discovered it was taken by a tweeker to what was described to us as one of the worst crack motel in Palm Springs, a place we were advised not to approach without the protection of the local cops. Tired, and eager to leave Palm Springs we checked out of our hotel and drove the mile up the road to this crack hotel to find my phone.


When we arrived to this crack hotel we approached the first people we saw and asked them if they knew of anyone that could have taken the phone. They declined any knowledge of the incident and warned us of several of the residents of the property. This didn't intimidate my brother and I as we continued on with our search with the help of the friendly, toothless property manager. 


After about 10 minutes of walking around the small complex utilizing the Find My iPhone by requesting it to force my phone to play a sound as we walked door to door at the chance we'd hear it. This proved to be ineffective and were on the verge of giving up until a youthful, strung out man appeared from a room curious of our presences. After a brief introduction from the property manager, we quickly barter with the man a reward if he could track down the iPhone. He quickly accepted and went room to room inquiring about the phone until quickly returned with a women who had "bought" the phone from a man at 7-Eleven for $80. 


I quickly grabbed the phone, turned it on to examine the phone, ensure that it was mine, which it was, and handed the pair a $20 bill I had in my wallet and quickly made my way back to my friend's car who was waiting nervously in the parking lot had we need to make a quick get away. 


We quickly took off heading west on HWY 111 towards Los Angeles feeling mighty accomplished in our ability to track down & recover my iPhone in less then 2 hours after discovering it's disappearance. 

ki11a
ki11a

@tvhandy  I will take things that never happened Alex, for 200...

Flick666
Flick666

@tvhandy  Dude, those were the thieves and you gave them $20. You only encouraged them to do it again. Apple is NOT your friend. They are perpetuating all this misery!

tvhandy
tvhandy

@Flick666 I'm more concerned over how the person was able to enter the hotel's property & the lack of security cameras, then I am about loosing $20 when the cost to replace the iPhone is much greater ($749). 



 
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