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Last week, Apple introduced two new iPhones with new features, including fingerprint recognition on one model and extra password protections. This is the company's first major effort to address smartphone thefts — but it's up against a sophisticated black market that has had years to grow and adapt to meet the world's desire for smartphones.
To call smartphone-related crime an epidemic is not an exaggeration. By one estimate, more than 4,000 phones are stolen every day in the United States.
Last year the crime rate in New York City rose after years of declines. The reason? Fifteen thousand people reported a stolen phone.
Jessica Ingle was one — her phone was stolen in a crowded bar. "I didn't even notice it," she says. "They must be experienced or something at doing it without people noticing."
The weird thing, Ingle says, is that the thief actually left her wallet in her handbag. Only the phone was missing. It was never found.
Officers are doing their best to fight crime, says Pat Timlin a former deputy commissioner in the New York City Police Department. But the odds are against them. Smartphones are easy to grab, he says, and they're almost as liquid as cash.
Tracking the Black Market
An insatiable appetite for smartphones has turned the black market into a global enterprise, efficiently sending ill-gotten gadgets wherever demand is greatest.
But no one has a complete picture of the size or scope of the black market. One can only catch it in glimpses.
In a report for NYPD, Timlin found stolen phones changing hands all over the city. "We saw bodegas, we saw local laundromats, and we saw back-alley sales," he says.
In March, the California attorney general announced the arrests of two individuals who allegedly paid homeless people to buy discounted phones on a two-year contract and then shipped the devices in bulk to Hong Kong.
There, phones can sell for $2,000 each — 10 times as much as in the states. The accused allegedly took in almost $4 million in less than a year.
Larger Than Thefts
"I hate the guys who do this type of stuff," says Marc Rogers of the online security firm Lookout. He is a hacker who frequents forums where information on the black market for cellphones is exchanged. He says in the global game of cat and mouse, the mouse is usually faster.
For example, some European authorities created blacklists, where users could report stolen phones and block them from being used again on other networks. But Rogers says criminals quickly realized that by shipping devices to foreign counties, they could sidestep the blacklists and probably sell for close to retail price.
Law enforcement tends to focus on thefts on the street and in subways. But Rogers believes police will only make progress when the black market itself is squeezed.
He says the security features in Apple's new operating system, like fingerprint ID and the requirement that you enter a password before resetting the phone, are a good start.
"Ultimately, it would be fantastic if we could get it set up so once a device is stolen the only value there is from the parts," he says.
New York police will be on high alert when Apple's new iPhone goes on sale Friday. Since the first iPhone debuted six years ago, they've noticed every new Apple product has comes with a spike in street crime.