Rounded edges. Larger screen. But still no kill switch. Apple announced the latest “new features” for its iPhone smartphone line Tuesday. Once again, there was nothing that will help change the game when it comes to discouraging smartphone thieves. The phones are worth hundreds of dollars each — and nearly everybody walking across Capitol Hill is carrying one.
“10 years ago you could not guarantee that almost every person on the street had something worth $400 to $500 in their pockets,” SPD spokesperson Detective Drew Fowler tells CHS about one of the major drivers behind the return of the summer crime spike to Capitol Hill.
Earlier, CHS counted up the record-breaking reported robbery totals for the Capitol Hill area in August. Turns out, we’ve been undercounting.
Included in that number should be the growing number of pickpocket incidents around the Hill. In 2014 through August, the Capitol Hill has tallied 111 reported robberies and 47 reported pickpocket incidents. In 2013, the numbers for the same period were 115 reported robberies but only 33 reported pickpocket thefts. Not all of the robberies and thefts involved phones — but a check of recent incidents and incidents from last summer show the majority did.
Detective Fowler tells CHS that theft crimes that include the traditional grab of a wallet or phone from an unaware victim are classified as pickpocket incidents but apparently some types of snatch and run phone grabs also get thrown in the bucket. For a busted thief, the distinction could be important — a pickpocket theft is only a misdemeanor. But for those who get away with it, there is no difference — both are thieves who have made off with a new phone. UPDATE: Sounds like the difference is even more nuanced. Pickpocket is, indeed, also a felony level crime.
The mechanics of the crimes that have plagued the Hill this summer illustrate the fine line. A group of teens will stake out an area and watch for an opportunity to single out one or two victims away from busy streets and passersby. They’ll attempt to take that person’s property in the easiest way possible. Sometimes, it’s simply running up and grabbing the phone or wallet. Other times, there is a confrontation and physical violence. If it comes to it, one of the group may be armed with a gun or a knife to make sure the job gets done. The line between the types of crime sometimes can be how the victim reacts. An added, thieve-y bonus: Victims are left without any means to quickly contact police.
Policing organizations have called on smartphone manufacturers to do more to make the phones have less value to thieves. They’ve also looked for federal help in breaking major smartphone rings like this FBI bust in Minnesota of a family funneling thousands of phones stolen across the nation into the Middle East and Chine where the unsubsidized and high-tariff markets command an even higher price for the technology.
In Seattle, SPD declines to provide any speculation about where the phones stolen on Capitol Hill end up but one officer told us that there are street buyers downtown that are known to do brisk business in phones and will work with behind the counter operations at shops across the city to funnel the stolen hardware overseas. You can also find some savvy phone crackers and wipers on the street doing a brisk business. If that’s true, it’s a mirror of what this report out of San Francisco documented about the fencing that goes down at Seventh in Market in that city.
Minnesota and, soon, California will require manufacturers to add “kill switch” features. Before other states jump in, the largest manufacturers have banded together to promise a database to track stolen phones and prevent their use in the United States. But that will do little to soften the worldwide demand for the devices. And that means they’ll be as valuable as ever on the streets of Pike/Pine.
Earl Saturday morning, one of the gang squads assigned to Capitol Hill’s entertainment district made their first bust of the new emphasis patrols. The first suspect they nailed? A pickpocket phone thief.
UPDATE: A couple commenters have been quick to point out that Apple has already shipped a de facto anti-theft capability. You can read about how to activate it here — and judge if the solution is really a kill switch.
UPDATE x2: And here’s how easy it is for somebody in the chain to bust your iCloud password.