SAN FRANCISCO — In this tech-savvy city teeming with commuters and tourists, the cell phone has become a top target of robbers who use stealth, force and sometimes guns.
Nearly half of all robberies in San Francisco this year are cell phone-related, police say, and most occur on bustling transit lines.
One thief recently snatched a smartphone while sitting right behind his unsuspecting victim and darted out the rear of a bus in mere seconds.
Another robber grabbed an iPhone from an oblivious bus rider — while she was still talking.
And, in nearby Oakland, City Council candidate Dan Kalb was robbed at gunpoint of his iPhone Wednesday after he attended a neighborhood anti-crime meeting.
“I thought he was going to shoot me,” recalled Kalb, who had dropped his phone during the stickup. “He kept saying, ‘Find the phone! Find the phone!”‘
These brazen incidents are part of a ubiquitous crime wave striking coast to coast. New York City Police report that more than 40 percent of all robberies now involve cell phones. And cell phone thefts in Los Angeles, which account for more than a quarter of all the city’s robberies, are up 27 percent from this time a year ago, police said.
“This is your modern-day purse snatching,” said longtime San Francisco Police Capt. Joe Garrity, who began noticing the trend here about two years ago. “A lot of younger folks seem to put their entire lives on these things that don’t come cheap.”
Thefts of cell phones– particularly the expensive do-it-all smartphones containing everything from photos and music to private e-mails and bank account statements– are costing consumers millions of dollars and sending law enforcement agencies and wireless carriers nationwide scrambling for solutions.
In San Francisco, police have gone undercover and launched a transit ad campaign, warning folks to “be smart with your smartphone.” Similar warnings went out in Oakland, where there have been nearly 1,300 cell phone robberies this year.
When Apple’s ballyhooed iPhone 5 went on sale last month, New York City police encouraged buyers to register their phone’s serial numbers with the department. That came just months after a 26-year-old chef at the Museum of Modern Art was killed for his iPhone while heading home to the Bronx.
In St. Louis, city leaders proposed an ambitious ordinance requiring anyone who resells cell phones to obtain a secondhand dealers license. Resellers also would need to record the phone’s identity number and collect detailed information including the seller’s names, addresses, a copy of their driver’s licenses — even their thumbprints.