Smartphone users targets for crime - FOX 13 News

Smartphone users targets for crime

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TAMPA (FOX 13) -

If you own a smartphone, you're a target. Thieves looking for quick cash are taking notice and every time you talk it's a temptation for them.

"It's almost like they are holding their cash up to their ear," says Sgt. Greg VanHeyst with the Tampa Police Department. He supervises a squad of detectives who investigate cell phone robberies.

"I had a case where a guy had a black duffle bag in a neighborhood and was just selling them out of the duffle bag on the street," VanHeyst said.

It's not hard to convert stolen smartphones to cash on the internet, which is why cell phone robberies are soaring in the Tampa Bay Area and across the county.

"Ten years ago, the theft of a cell phone or hand held device comprised eight percent of our robberies and grand larcenies. Now, it's over 40 percent," said New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly during a news conference.

In Washington, D.C. the number is almost as high – 38 percent, and the criminals have become more brazen than ever.

Sgt. VanHeyst can rattle off many examples in Tampa—most recently, a beat down robbery north of Raymond James Stadium on Himes Avenue.

"They jumped out of a car, hit her a couple times, grabbed her cell phone and threw it in their pockets and drove off," he said.

Fox 13 talked with the victim, Sarah, who did not want us to use her last name because she's fearful her attackers might come back because she fought back against her attackers—two women.

"I kicked them in the chin when I was down, knocked them in the face with my U-lock that was dangling from my handlebars," says Sarah. 

Three men waited in the getaway car. The girls took six dollars and her smartphone.

"It was my lifeline to my family. I stored everything in it," she said.

Detectives have not recovered it and believe there's a good chance it was sold on the black market, and somebody will re-activate it with another cell phone carrier. That's why for years, law enforcement has been pressing for a national database for stolen phones.

A blacklist of stolen phones would in essence, render them useless and turn a hot phone into a brick or paper weight. Police chiefs from 70 different big cities signed on and Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor fully supported the idea.

But the cell phone industry had resisted, until earlier this year, under pressure from the FCC announced a deal in April with four of America's biggest wireless carriers: Sprint, Nextel, T-Mobile USA, Verizon Wireless, and AT&T.

LINK: FCC fact sheet of the deal

"We're creating a database to prevent use of a stolen smartphones and tablets.  This database will enable carriers to disable stolen smart phones and tablets, dramatically reducing their value on the black market," said FCC Commissioner Julius Genachwski,.

In addition to the database, the wireless industry has launched a plan to educate the public to password protect phones and show them how to remotely locate and wipe stolen phones.

But the most critical component, the national database, won't be fully online until October, which comes too late for Sarah. What concerns Sgt. VanHyest is some of the smaller carriers haven't signed on.

"You need it across the board. If the bad guys knows to go to a certain provider to re-activate that Android they just stole, they are going to do it," he said.

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