Cellphone theft afflicts San Francisco

Commuters who take public transportation have been targeted by cell phone thieves.  Commuters are often unaware of their surroundings making them easier targets of theft.  Photo by Samantha Benedict / Xpress

Commuters who take public transportation have been targeted by cell phone thieves. Commuters are often unaware of their surroundings making them easier targets of theft. Photo by Samantha Benedict / Xpress

Celina Curato bitterly remembers the times her phones have been stolen. Once at a club and another on the bus on her way home from SF State.

“It was super crowded and I was holding the top bars and when I went to grab my phone, it was gone and the bastard had already turned it off,” Curato, an SF State graduate, said.

She got on the 29 bus in front of the University, and realized her phone was gone by the next stop at Stonestown.

“It was stolen within four minutes of me getting on the bus,” Curato said.

Curato is one of many victims of cell phone theft, a crime which is plaguing cities throughout the United States, especially San Francisco, where half of all robberies last year were cellphone related.

According to San Francisco Police Officer Carlos Manfredi, the high rate of thefts may be in relation to San Francisco being a dense city with many distracted pedestrians and commuters.  Many of the thefts also happen on San Francisco Municipal Transportation, where thieves snatch phones and tablets out of peoples hands.

Manfredi reiterated some common advice to avoid becoming a victim: be aware of your surroundings.

“If the bus is going to stop, stop what you are doing, look up look around put your phone down or put it in your pocket. And when the bus is in movement again you can go back and look at it,” he said.

The San Francisco Police Department has taken action to combat the crime, including a public service announcement campaign on Muni and on the radio, warning San Franciscans and visitors to be aware of their surroundings, and a sting operation where they arrest people buying stolen cellphones off of 7th and Market Street. This operation has been in effect for a few years, Officer Manfredi said.

Although the sale of stolen property happens in many parts of the city, that intersection has been a hotspot for such transactions. There, plainclothes officers sell supposed stolen phones.

“Basically cut the head off the snake,” Manfredi said. “If you stop the buyers from purchasing the phone then the suspects who are trying to steal the phone won’t steal it anymore.”

Cell phone theft has also been a problem at SF State. According to University spokesperson Ellen Griffin, there were 28 cell phone thefts in the 2012-2013 academic year. Ten have occurred within the past two months.

The SF State University Police Department has posted tips on their website to prevent robberies like not wearing headphones connected to electronic devices when walking and not wearing your cellphone on your belt.

The website also advises to not lend your phone to strangers since “grab and go” incidents have occurred on campus, where suspects ask victims to borrow their phones to make a call, then run off with the phone when its handed to them. Four out of the 28 cell phone thefts on campus were classified as such.

In response to the high rate of cell phone theft, efforts to decrease the crime are now being pushed onto the phone industry.

Recently, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón urged cellphone makers to develop technology that would disable a phone if it is stolen, something like a killswitch. As of now, he called the industry’s efforts “anti-consumer” and “socially irresponsible.”

There are apps available for Android and Apple devices like “Plan B” and “Find my iPhone” that can help recover a stolen phone by tracking it. However, if the phone is turned off the tracking is unavailable.

For now, SF State students like Miki Fukai, who had her iPhone stolen at the school’s downtown campus, have to stick to other methods of cell phone theft prevention.

“Now I always zip up my purse and never keep it in my pocket,” Fukai said. “I’ve had it happen to friends, and I really thought it wasn’t going to happen to me.”

Latest comment
  • SFPD’s efforts are laughable, especially the part about undercovers. I’ve seen citizens lose their phones and not a “hero” with a badge ever in sight.

    Also these cellphone thefts seem rather exaggerated to put us inconstant fear and increase our police dependence. What better way to create job security than “build” a need?