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Popularity, price make smartphones top pick among thieves

By Lauren Pack

June 1, 2014

A burgeoning black market for smartphones is driving the rise in thefts of the mobile devices nationally and locally, law enforcement officials say.

Nearly 3.1 million people — including thousands in Butler County — had their smartphones stolen in 2013, according to Consumer Reports' Annual State of the Net survey. That's nearly double the 1.6 million thefts reported in 2012. And the Federal Communication Commission reported that 40 percent of all robberies in major U.S. cities in 2012 involved cellphones.

Police say possessing a high-end smartphone is the equivalent of having $400 to $500 in your pocket. And because of their high resale value, they are an attractive target for thieves. A smartphone is a cellular phone that is capable of performing many of the functions of a computer.

More than 800 cell phone thefts have been reported to Hamilton police since 2011, said Sgt. Michael Waldeck of the Hamilton Police Department. Seventy-nine thefts have been reported so far this year, while there were 276 in 2013, 280 in 2012 and 194 in 2011.

"I would agree that the motivation for most of these thefts are for the suspect to make money by reselling them," Waldeck said. "Unfortunately, these crimes are a lower priority compared to the more serious reported crimes we are (working) on every day. If we have evidence to follow up on, then we will investigate these crimes. Most of the time though, we don't have much to go on."

A lost or stolen smartphone can also put its owner at risk for identity theft, police officials say. Because many users keep personal information in or do mobile banking on their smartphones, sensitive data can become exposed when a phone is taken.

Erica Hensley, of Madison Twp., was working at an area bank this past April when her smartphone was stolen from her desk. Lost were 1,300 photographs and plenty of personal information that she feared could lead to identity theft.

"I thankfully have never been a victim of rape or any violence, but I can say that I felt violated," said Hensley who had used her upgrade to purchase the AT&T Optimus phone and was faced with paying more than $400 to get the same phone.

After blocking the number and deactivating the SIM card through her service carrier, Hensley was given an iPhone by a friend.

"It is never on my desk or out in the open," Hensley said of her smartphone.

In an effort to help Hensley recover her phone, Middletown police checked pawn shops and businesses dealing with used cell phones using LeadsOnline, a national database system that records items purchased and the identity of the seller.

"Turned up nothing," Hensley said of the police investigation. "I am pretty sure my phone is in the hands of a drug dealer, if (they) didn't sell it for money by now."

The amount of personal data stored on smartphones has heightened the panic for owners desperate to recover their lost or stolen devices. The New York Times recently reported that a growing number of phone theft victims are using tracking features, such as the "Find My iPhone" app, to locate their phones and then confront the thieves.

That's not a tactic local law enforcement officials endorse.

Middletown police Lt. Scott Reeve and Capt. Mike Craft, of the Butler County Sheriff's Office, said having a make, model and serial number for your smartphone greatly increases the chances of police recovering a stolen or lost phone.

Some states are moving toward requiring all smartphones sold to come pre-programmed with an anti-theft program, or "kill switch," that would render the stolen device worthless. California legislators recently introduced a bill that, if passed, would required just such a program on mobile phones sold in or shipped to that state starting next year. Similar legislation is being considered in New York, Illinois and Minnesota.

Ohio lawmakers are considering legislation that would make stealing a cellphone, computer, laptop or tablet a felony offense.

"They are selling these, shipping them off to other countries for salvage values of $100, $150," state Sen. Jim Hughes, R-Columbus, who is sponsoring Senate Bill 63, said in May 2013. "It's just one of the new crimes that is overtaking everything."

Samsung Electronics, the world's largest mobile-phone maker, recently announced it would add two safeguards to its latest smartphone, the Galaxy 5 S, in an effort to deter mobile device theft. The company said users will be able to activate for free its "Find My Mobile" and "Reactivation Lock" anti-theft features to protect the phones. The features that will lock the phone if there's an unauthorized attempt to reset it are on models sold by wireless carriers Verizon and U.S. Cellular.

Apple created a similar "activation lock" feature for the popular iPhone last year.

But even with all the personal data on smartphones, law enforcement and store owners who sell the phones say the vast majority of the devices are swiped to be traded or sold for cash.

"Would I say they try to get as much information off them before selling them? Sure. But it's about making money from the phone not getting bank info, at least around here," said Middletown police Lt. Jim Cunningham.

Zee Jordan, owner of B.S.T. Wireless on Central Avenue in Middletown, buys and sells thousands of cellphones a year. He said people come to his store because they need money and want to sell their phone, even the outdated models.

"I use the broken ones and old basic phones, for parts," Jordan said, pulling out a drawer holding about 50 broken devices.

One customer sold a phone with a slide keyboard for $25, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, he said.

Jordan said his goal is to make 25 percent to 30 percent profit, and all the phones he buys are sold locally. Stolen phones are more likely to be found for sale online, where there are sites offering deals on thousands of phones with little chance of tracing the seller, he added.

To say smartphone theft has increased because of information stored on them is "not correct," Jordan said

"The thefts are up because that is what everyone has now," he said.

Statistics show there are more cellphones being used in the U.S. than there are people. Last year, 968 million smartphones were sold worldwide, up 42 percent from 2012, according to the research firm Gartner.

Jordan said he does his best to assure the phones he buys are not stolen or lost.

"But I cannot be 100 percent sure," Jordan said, noting he does enter all items purchased with the sellers' information and serial numbers directly into the LeadsOnline terminal. "I am not here to disbelieve people."

Jordan said he watches as the person selling wipes the device of any personal information, and he double checks himself.

He said people buying and selling locally have limited cash and need the money. Stealing phones to gain personal information is not the goal.

"If they were that smart, they would not be thieves," he said with a laugh.


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