Cellphone Robberies

As smartphones have become more popular and more expensive, phone theft is increasing dramatically. According to the Federal Communications Commission, one in three robberies nationwide now involves taking a phone. In San Francisco, the number is closer to 50 percent; in New York, more than 40 percent; and in Washington, D.C., 38 percent. In Baltimore, the trend indicates that we may soon be at the point where phones are taken in the majority of street robberies.

Phone theft is usually a crime of opportunity. And criminals focus on opportunities you give them, whether you’re walking on the street, sitting in a restaurant or coffee shop, working out at the gym, or studying at the library.

At the Homewood campus last year, there were thefts of unattended phones at Fresh Food Café, the O'Connor Rec Center, and residence halls. Phones were also taken off campus, in hangouts like Subway and Chipotle and in robberies on the street.

Another frequent robbery technique is the “grab and run”; a criminal catches you with your guard down while you’re on a phone call, snatches the device, and takes off. Yet another technique: A criminal asks to borrow your phone to make an urgent call and then runs away.

You can do a lot to protect yourself against phone theft.


Here are some tips:

  • Conceal what a crook wants to steal.
  • Do not walk in public talking on your phone, texting, or even openly carrying the device.
  • If you must be on the phone, be aware of your surroundings and of other people nearby. (Just being obviously alert and cautious may deter a criminal, who will wait for an easier target.)
  • Don’t wear earbuds while on the street. In particular, white iPhone or iPad earbuds suggest you are carrying an Apple product, which may target you as a potential high-value victim.
  • Don't allow strangers to “borrow” your phone or other electronic device.

Other important precautions:

  • Keep records on your phone, including 1) make and model, 2) color and appearance, 3) PIN or security lock code, and 4) the IMEI number for GSM phones. (IMEI stands for International Mobile Equipment Identity. It’s a 15-digit number unique to your phone and can be found by looking beneath the battery or by keying in *#06# on many phones.)
  • Add a security mark: print your post code or house number onto both your phone and battery so that you can identify them easily.
  • Ensure that your cellphone is password-protected.
  • Register your phone with your network provider when you buy it. If the phone is later stolen, report the loss to the provider immediately.
  • Don't store personal or financial information in your phone. If it's stolen, it's not difficult for criminals to extract information before wiping the phone’s memory and reselling the device.
  • Activate the global positioning system tracking option on your phone. If the phone does not have GPS tracking, consider after-market software. For instance, there’s a free “Find my iPhone” app available from Apple.

To combat phone theft, the FCC and the major U.S. cellphone carriers have agreed to create a national database to track stolen phones and prevent them from being used again. The database is scheduled to launch late this year.

But preventing a theft is far better – and far easier – than having to deal with one.

Remember: Be smart to avoid losing your smartphone.