April 28, 2013 1:31 pm

Smartphone thefts reaching ‘epidemic levels’ in Lower Mainland communities

Police say smartphone theft has reached epidemic proportions in the Lower Mainland

Ward Perrin / PNG
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Griffin Kay and his friend were lucky the guys holding knives on them proved to be boneheads.

Kay, 15, and his 16-year-old bud were walking back to Kay’s Surrey home at noon on Feb. 3 when two guys stalking them flashed pocket knives and demanded cellphones and money.

Kay’s friend handed over his iPhone and wallet to one of the men. He pocketed the phone, plucked $20 from the wallet, and handed it back.

The other guy asked Kay if he had a phone.

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“I pulled it out for him and it’s, like, a crappy LG. He actually told me he didn’t want it,” Kay recalls.

Kay told the guy he had no money. This was spectacularly untrue — he had $100 — but the robber believed him.

The bad guys, who looked to be in their late teens, walked away. Kay and his friend used the spurned LG to call Kay’s dad.

Soon after checking in with police, they got a call that the two assailants had been arrested trying to rob another person, who had fought back. A police officer on her break witnessed the scuffle.

The iPhone was eventually returned. Kay’s friend, while luckier than many, had just joined the growing ranks of Lower Mainlanders whose cells have been stolen. Police departments across the region report rising numbers of cell thefts and robberies or stubbornly high rates.

‘EPIDEMIC LEVELS’

The Vancouver Police Department logged 46 cell robberies in the city during the first three months of the year, up 15 per cent from the same period in 2012.

Last year, the number of incidents jumped to 215, 10 per cent higher than 2011.

“I would say it’s got to epidemic levels,” VPD spokesman Sgt. Randy Fincham says. “It happens everywhere in the city and everywhere in the Lower Mainland.

“We have 70-year-old ladies being pushed down to take their cellphones, retail store workers being tied up while their stores are robbed.”

The growing price and popularity of smartphones make mobile devices tempting targets for crooks. Smartphones sold by Telus outside plans cost $900 for a 64-gig iPhone 5, $730 for a Samsung Galaxy Note II and $700 for a BlackBerry Q10.

At the end of last year, 66 per cent of Telus’s post-paid wireless customers had smartphones, up from 33 per cent at the end of 2010, Telus spokesman Shawn Hall says.

Carelessness and greed are also at play, says Cpl. Dave Reid of Burnaby RCMP. Smartphone users absorbed in texting or web-browsing often have no clue who is watching or stalking them, Reid says.

Wannabe owners who scour online vendors’ sites for astounding smartphone bargains may fuel the market for stolen devices, Reid says.

“All of us want a deal. Our inherent greed can kick us in the rear end,” he says. “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

“You’re much better off going to one of the regular service providers.”

POORLY GUARDED

Cellphones’ convenience appeals to consumers and thieves alike, says Martin Andresen, an associate professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University. They’re small, lightweight and you can stick a lot them in a bag, Andresen says.

They’re also valuable, often poorly guarded targets. For criminals assessing the value and accessibility of potential targets, the risk taken in grabbing a smartphone is low compared with its black-market value.

“If we end up having a significant increase in these crimes, there’s obviously some sort of cost-benefit [analysis] going on,” Andresen says.

“What’s the opportunity? What’s the payoff I’ll get? And what’s the risk when it comes to my punishment?”

No one suggests well-organized bands of cellphone bandits are behind these crimes. One or two people may take advantage of a high-volume area such as a mall to commit multiple thefts, Cpl. Reid says.

Transit Police spokeswoman Anne Drennan says shifting combinations of people within loosely affiliated groups steal phones.

“They’ll work in pairs, sometimes in threes, and band together on a particular night to do a couple of jobs,” Drennan says.

SNATCH AND GRABS

The majority of cellphone thefts on or near B.C. Transit property are snatch and grabs, Drennan says. But many victims are people who naivelytrust needy strangers.

“The number of people who are kind enough to give up their phone to a stranger who asks to make a call is significant,” Drennan says. “When they’ve borrowed the phone, they run off with it.”

Stolen phones may be sold on the local black market or swapped for drugs from dealers who use them until they’re discontinued by a service provider. A large number are listedfor sale online, Fincham says.

Cellphone service providers and police are encouraging people to be smart smartphone users by being attuned to their surroundings. Transit police saw cellphone robberies decline in the early part of this year following the launch of an awareness campaign called “device advice” in December.

But Drennan says incidents spiked in recent weeks, perhaps as cellphone users relax their guard again.

Telus has responded to occasional thefts and break-ins at stores by tightening security, installing shock-resistant glass and reducing the number of cellphones on site, Hall says.

Heightened awareness by users will be one of the most effective deterrents, Hall says.

“They’re getting more difficult to steal,” he says. “People are taking reasonable steps to protect their smartphones by putting passwords on them and keeping them in the inside pocket of a purse.”

Sometimes caution alone won’t deter a determined thief. Jessica, a Langley resident who asked that her last name not be used, was dancing with a friend at a Surrey nightclub two summers ago.

She had stuck her BlackBerry Torch in the front pocket of her pants.

“I went to get my phone and it was gone,” she says. “Someone must have picked it out of my pants and I didn’t feel a thing.”

With persistence, and help from police and her service provider, she tracked the phone to an Albertaman who had bought it off craigslist for $500. She got it back.

“Don’t flash your phone all the time,” she says. “It just makes you an easier target for someone who wants to steal one.”

PROTECT YOUR PHONE:

You will be tempted to go into bloodhound mode if someone snatches your cellphone. Bad idea.

“The first impulse may be to give chase,” says Burnaby RCMP Cpl. Dave Reid. “Don’t. You don’t know what they’re physically capable of or how desperate they are.

”It’s best to stop, observe and pass a detailed description to police, Reid says.

Contact your wireless carrier immediately to stop service.

Users can take steps to protect personal data, say wireless carriers. Make sure your device is password protected. Note the International Mobile Equipment Identity number. It’s on the back of your phone or access it by typing *#06# on your device.

Configure your device so it locks after a short period.

Install an app that lets you remotely remove data from your device if it’s lost or stolen.

Install an app to track your device.

INDUSTRY BLACKLIST

Canada’s wireless industry is creating a database that will blacklist stolen or lost cellphones to keep criminals from reactivating them.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, a group that represents carriers, says the database will be up and running by Sept. 30. It is designed to reduce the incentive for theft by verifying whether a mobile device’s International Mobile Equipment Identity number has been listed as stolen or lost in Canada.

Canadian carriers will also participate in an international database. After a cellphone owner calls their carrier to report a device has been stolen or lost, the device’s IMEI number is added to the database.

The CWTA’s initiative came in the wake of a push by law-enforcement officials such as Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu to create a blacklist to protect consumers from theft.

“People take other people’s cellphones because they can turn around and sell them,” says Sgt. Randy Fincham, a spokesman for Vancouver police.

“If they know they can’t be activated, then we’ve eliminated the market.”

CELL THEFTS BY THE NUMBERS

Your chances of having your cellphone stolen in Vancouver are greatest if you’re on the street between midnight and 3 a.m.

The midnight-to-3-a.m.period accounts for 22 per cent of cellphone thefts, statistics from Vancouver police show. That’s followed by 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and 9 p.m. to midnight, at 16 per cent each.

Cell robberies on the street account for 71 per cent of incidents, followed by commercial locations at 10 per cent.

Males aged 16 to 30 have the highest chance of having their cellphone stolen.

Cell theft is rising in Vancouver but falling provincially.

Cellphone robberies in the city rose by 15 per cent in the first three months of the year compared with the same period in 2012, Vancouver police say.

For all of 2012, robberies rose 10 per cent from the previous year.

Provincially, 9,998 cellphones were stolen last year, down from 14,007 in 2011 and 16,931 in 2010, according to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. Three times more cellphones were lost than stolen in B.C. last year.

© 2013 Postmedia

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