I know what near death looks like. He is strong and wears a hoodie. It was November 2010 at 8:30 p.m. in Russian Hill, an upscale neighbourhood in San Francisco that is generally considered safe.
I was walking home from the grocery store, carrying a bag of groceries in one hand and an iPhone in my other hand.
I saw a man in a hoodie walking in front of me. He turned around. He was a half a block away. But he was close enough to see my flashy new iPhone 4.
I crossed the road to get away front of him, but he came charging at me.
He grabbed my hands.
I said, “Please don’t take my iPhone, please don’t take my iPhone.”
I was thinking I didn’t want him to steal my photos and contacts, and access my most private data.
He said nothing. He just stared at me. A second later, he punched me in the face.
As I lay on the ground unconscious, he ran away with my iPhone 4 and hopped in a getaway car.
A guy on a motorcycle went chasing after him and took down his licence plate number. But the thug was able to get away.
Later that night, my neck hurt and half my face was numb. My back hurt — it felt like whiplash.
I lay in bed for two weeks. I had nightmares. My mind kept going back to the moment of him charging at me. Images of him punching my face would play out like a horror film. I felt trapped in that memory, in that moment.
Following the event, I went to the hospital twice, and they told me if I wasn’t dead already, I’d be OK. There’s always a risk of bleeding to death from a head injury.
While that happened a year and a half ago, certain situations still make me feel uneasy and I hesitate going out at night alone.
But I learned something valuable from this experience: I’m not the only one.
In the following months, a handful of men in the tech industry emailed me to say that their wives had been attacked for their phones too. A police department spokesperson told us that an average of six people every day are mugged for their electronic gadgets.
And a lot of the thefts happen in exactly the same way — a man punches a woman in the face, steals her phone, and gets into a waiting car.
Victims Have A Common Profile
Photo: Boonsri Dickinson, Business Insider
Up to 80 per cent of the street crimes in San Francisco are robberies of phones, laptops, and tablets, according an assistant District Attorney and several San Francisco cops who routinely work on iPhone theft cases.
They all asked to remain anonymous, as they do not speak for the SFPD on an official basis.
There are about several hundred robberies a month in the city, our sources said.
In San Francisco, a majority of these robberies occur in sketchy or borderline neighborhoods like Bayview, the Mission, the Tenderloin, and the Western Addition.
Crooks are also known to drive out to nice neighborhoods and get out and find a victim to attack. The drive-by robbery is getting more common, where robbers see someone talking on their phone, so they get out and snatch it.
The stolen electronics are brought to some known stores on 7th and Market Street, according to a cop who goes to that area to catch robbers who try to sell stolen goods there.
Criminals usually sell an iPhone for hundreds of dollars in cash or exchange it for dope.
Robbers get a high return on smartphones. If they steal bikes, they get 30 per cent. But if they steal an iPhone, they can get up to a few hundred dollars. This is the same as it costs when a person signs up with a new plan with a carrier, so the robbers are getting market value for stolen goods.
Photo: Boonsri Dickinson, Business Insider
A sergeant who works on robbery investigations said “the problem is that we can arrest these guys all day long, but they don’t get prosecuted.”
Prosecutors have to be able to prove that the suspect knows the property is stolen and usually they can’t prove that.
An assistant DA in San Francisco, who has worked on many robbery cases, said the vast majority of the robberies happen on MUNI, either on the bus or the electric street trains. Though they aren’t usually as violent as my case.
Typically, the victim is seated near an exit door and is using his/her phone when the bus or train stops to let passengers off. The suspect waits until the last minute, grabs the phone out of the victim’s hands and runs off the bus or train. Sometimes the person can wait until the victim is off the bus to attack.
Most of the time — but certainly not always — the victim is an Asian female of any age.
The thieves tend to wear all dark clothing, and usually a hooded sweatshirt with the hood up.
These attacks are increasingly serious. One police officer recently worked on a case of a 50-year-old Asian woman who was critically injured after she was attacked and robbed of her phone. The woman fought back and was knocked to the ground, where she hit her head. The woman underwent brain surgery to remove part of her skull, and she survived.
Photo: Boonsri Dickinson, Business Insider
How To Be Safe
The thug popped my bubble and brought me into a whole new level of being alert.
But most people don’t have this increased awareness. Most walk around unaware, lost in their music or or texting their friends.
That’s a mistake. If you look up and look at people in the eyes, they will probably not attack because you’d be able to identify them. That’s why awareness is your greatest weapon.
Officer Albie Esparza, a public information officer at the San Francisco Police Department said, “we all know people have to use their devices. We suggest people use their devices while being aware of their surroundings. Limit the use of the devices and if one is going to use music, then turn the volume down to hear if someone is approaching you.”
The bottom line is criminals are opportunistic and if they see an opportunity, they will take it, Esparza said.
“If one is a victim of a robbery, call police immediately and try to obtain a detailed description of the suspect and direction of travel. Do not fight as suspects may be armed with a weapon and no property is worth being injured over. Of course GPS tracking is very helpful and you should provide that info to police,” Esparza said.
While Apple’s MobileMe can trace your iPhone, the phone has to be on for the tracking feature to work. A cop told me that it is somewhat accurate and it has been useful in finding some stolen iPhones.
But it has its fair share of limitations, especially if the robber is hiding in a home. MobileMe only circles a general area, so it will only narrow it down to a few houses and the cops don’t have the power to search the houses.
Usually, experienced criminals shut the phone off right after stealing it, so MobileMe won’t work anyway.
So can wireless carriers help?
No. Carriers can shut off your phone number, but can’t do anything by law that allows cops to get information on where your specific phone is. It’s against privacy laws, a cop said.
No Stolen Phone Registry In The U.S. — Why?
A police officer who investigates these kinds of crimes told us about a search warrant study. In the study, an investigator went to 12 victims of iPhone robberies back when AT&T was the only U.S. carrier with the iPhone. Even if the criminals changed the sim card, and even they or a subsequent buyer jailbroke it, the serial numbers on the phone stayed the same.
Four of those phones were re-registered with AT&T, he said.
Other countries have a registry of stolen phones, so the phone can’t be turned on by another service provider. When it gets put on this list, it basically makes the phone useless.
The carriers in the United States do not do that.
“I wish that there could be a national registry for stolen devices. It could be a huge deterrent for iPhone thefts,” one officer told us. The national registry has reduced crime in other parts of the world because there is no reason for criminals to resell an item that won’t ever work.
We reached out to AT&T to ask why they don’t have a stolen phone registry. They didn’t comment.
Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs at CTIA said, “CTIA and its member companies have been in active discussions with FCC and law enforcement regarding potential solutions, and we will be happy to expand those discussions to include other policymakers. At the same time, we want to make sure that whatever solutions are adopted to address this problem do not have unintended consequences.” (CTIA has a list of anti-theft protection apps for phones.)
The officer who told us about the search warrant study thinks it is because “the companies are trying to fight having the registries established, so that when someone has their phone stolen, that person needs to get another phone. Apple doesn’t want that either. They make business off the robberies that happen.”
According to two sources close to the situation, companies within the GSM Association are “exploring an industrywide solution to permanently disabling stolen devices on all networks.”
At least these discussions are happening.
I had to buy another iPhone. But I can’t buy back my innocence.