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Smartphone Thefts Make Up Most Metro Robberies

Groups pushing cell phone registry to squash black market

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MPD recommends Metro riders be more discrete with their smartphone usage to avoid becoming the victims of theft.
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MPD recommends Metro riders be more discrete with their smartphone usage to avoid becoming the victims of theft.

When you sit on the bus or stand on a train platform nonchalantly holding your smart phone inches from your eyes, you are an easy target. Thefts of mobile devices are soaring in major cities across the country with many of the robberies occurring in mass transit systems.

Cell phones targetted by thieves

In the District of Columbia, Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier estimates 60 to 70 percent of robberies are cell phone related. Thieves often leave the victims' wallet or other valuables while demanding — or snatching — a smartphone, according to Lanier. Exact robbery statistics are not available, but she says they are in the process of being compiled.

In the Metro system, roughly half of robberies involve high-end mobile devices including smartphones and tablets, said WMATA deputy chief Ronald Pavlik.

"We're reminding our customers to be aware of their surroundings," Pavlik said. "Try not to use it in plain view. Don't sit near the train doors. A lot of the robberies occur near the train doors. The thief times it perfectly as the doors are opening and closing."

Anyone who owns a smartphone understands why they are targeted by thieves. Stolen devices can be resold for hundreds of dollars and they store loads of personal information ripe for identity thieves.

"It's my lifeline, all my numbers, everything," said Andrea Caulfield as she rode a Green Line train Monday afternoon. "I do have it passcode protected. When I take it out I just take it for granted that it's still going to be there when I put it away."

In the first nine months of 2012, Metro police reported 314 thefts of mobile devices, a slight increase from the same period last year. Fifty-five additional "thefts" resulted in arrests as a result of WMATA's "crime suppression teams" that consist of undercover officers holding smartphones acting as decoys in troublesome areas.

Database offers some new protection

More promising is an FCC initiative that takes effect October 31. Smartphone owners will be able to register their devices in a database that police will use to identify and disable it if it's stolen, rendering it useless for resale on the black market. Both the MPD and WMATA police are partners in the FCC initiative.

Owners will need basic information about their phones to register, according to Deputy Chief Pavlik.

"They'll have to know their own phone number, the serial number, date of purchase, things of that nature," he said.

The database, compiled by wireless carriers, is supported by the wireless advocacy group CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association), based in Washington, D.C.

CTIA vice president Christopher Guttman-McCabe calls the database a "key component" of an effort to dry up the black market for stolen phones. He said police chiefs, carriers, and the FCC approached his organization seeking a solution to the rise in cell phone-related robberies.

"The goal is to find a way to take a device and make it valueless after it's lost or stolen," he said. "We are also starting a concerted effort to try to get consumers to use PINs or passwords to lock the phone if it gets lost or stolen."

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