Smartphones driving violent crime across U.S.

An IDG News Service investigation finds guns and knives are used in a quarter of all robberies of cellphones in San Francisco

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 gun point 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 gun point, three at knife point 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 crimes reported in the daily police log were cellphone thefts.

[Check out this interactive graphic showing cellphone thefts over a six-month period in San Francisco.]

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.

(An interactive map showing six months of cellphone and tablet thefts in San Francisco can be viewed here)

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 handset itself could be resold and reused. It's made easier by modern smartphones that accept SIM cards, which were introduced to allow legitimate users to switch phones easily.

Reacting to pressure from law enforcement and regulators, the U.S.'s 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.

In theory, once added to the list, a phone cannot be activated on any U.S. carrier network. But the system is not perfect. For it to work, phone users must notify their carrier of the theft and in some cases provide the IMEI themselves. There are also limitations to its scope.

Cellphone thefts by time
This graph, from data compiled by IDG News Service, shows the average number of cell phone thefts per hour of the day in San Francisco between November 2012 and April 2013.
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