BY DIANE DIMOND
Are you and your family among those who can’t wait to get their hands on one of the new Apple iPhone 5s? Have you already gotten yours?
If so, well, congratulations! You’ve just added yourself to a growing number of potential robbery victims being targeted in sprees sprouting up nationwide. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there are those out there who see your new communications toy — be it an iPhone, iPad, smartphone or other type of mobile device — as a way to make a fast buck. Steal it, sell it, make some dishonest money.
The bad guys don’t bother trying to steal car radios or stereo equipment anymore. Why should they bother when on every street corner, in every coffee shop, convenience store, public park and fast food restaurant, there are crowds of people distractedly texting or talking on mobile devices?
Watch them closely. They often hold the item out and away from their body as they talk into the speakerphone or punch in a message. To a determined thief, it’s like an engraved party invitation to crash-and-grab.
Because people are so preoccupied with their gadgets (at the expense of realizing who might be stalking them), they make themselves near perfect prey. And, it’s not just the device they stand to lose, but all the personal information stored within that could be exploited. Bank account and credit card numbers, maybe even private medical information.
Police in Houston, Las Vegas, North Miami and Chicago report rings of cell phone and iPad thieves have been brazenly operating lately. Several other major cities, including New York and Washington, D.C., report up to 40 percent of all the robberies committed involve criminals trying to snatch these expensive toys — right out of the hands of distracted victims.
Since Apple products seem to be the most popular target, this type of crime has now been dubbed “Apple picking.”
One California man recently took it to extremes. At 5 a.m. one morning, he and a couple of accomplices rammed his BMW into the plate glass doors of an Apple store in Temecula, Calif. Surveillance cameras captured the hooded thieves grabbing thousands of dollars in merchandise.
They apparently didn’t know that the brand new phones they were stealing would be worth a lot less when the new iPhone 5 was introduced just a few days later. They also didn’t plan on a security gate automatically closing and temporarily blocking their escape. The cameras caught the dramatic action as the car repeatedly rammed the gate from the inside, tearing off the back license plate in the process and leaving it behind as a key piece of evidence. The car’s owner, Equonne Howard, 22, was arrested within hours and now sits in jail.
These thefts are usually not so comical. In fact, they sometimes injure or even kill people. Hwangbum Yang, 26, a chef in New York, was shot and killed earlier this year during a cell phone robbery as he headed home from his job at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art. Last year in Chicago, 68-year-old Sally Katona-King was shoved down a flight of stairs at a train station by a 17-year-old robber who tried to steal her iPhone. He was a repeat cellphone robber and is now charged with murder.
The Federal Communications Commission is working on a plan to make stealing these gadgets a lot less profitable. Last spring, it was announced the FCC would create a database where victims could report their device as stolen. Their carrier would then automatically block service to the item, making it difficult to resell. Once this registry is fully operational, law enforcement officials think the number of cellphone thefts should drop almost immediately.
It’s probably a good idea to have a family meeting to talk about ways to be more cautious when using these communication devices we just can’t seem to live without. Let the young people in the house know that one of the more frequent ploys is for the youngest looking member of a gang to approach student-aged kids outside a school or in a mall and politely ask to use their phone. They will likely claim their battery has run down or that they left it at home, but once the loan is made the thief runs off with their prize.
It sounds so stunningly simple and predictable that you wouldn’t think anyone old enough to carry a cellphone would fall for it. The reality is, this kind of crime happens multiple times every day in every major city in America.
Also, be aware of your surroundings and who might be watching you while you’re busy watching the digital screen. Don’t hold the device in such a way that it would be easy for a crook to run by you and grab it. Don’t leave the item in your vehicle, and for goodness sakes, don’t leave one of these tempting gizmos on a cafe table while you step away to grab a quick drink refill!
As any police officer would caution: If confronted by a robber, give it up — don’t fight back to save a measly piece of electronics. It can always be replaced.
Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net.