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South to the Future 

Caught Unawares: Mobile Phones Linked to Violent Crime

Wednesday, Jan 12 2000
January 12, 2000

NEW YORK -- Katherine Isbister, an advertising representative with ClicMedia, used to field dozens of calls on her daily walk to and from work in New York City's Silicon Alley. She boasts about the time she closed a quarter-million-dollar deal between pit stops at Starbucks and Max's, her favorite bagel store. But these days, the 32-year-old Isbister refuses to do business "out in the open" and stores her mobile phone inside her purse while on the street.

No, Isbister is not ashamed to use her phone in public -- she's afraid.

Although seldom mentioned by the media, pedestrians using mobile phones have become popular targets for robbery and assault. The New York City Police Department began to keep statistics on the number of assaults against mobile phone users in the late '90s; that number has been rising. In July of 1999, Isbister was one of 40 New Yorkers singled out for attack because she was paying more attention to her telephone conversation than her surroundings.

"At first I thought it was one of my co-workers playing a joke on me," recalls Isbister, who was walking through Washington Square at the time of the attack. "But then I hit a wall of pain and fell to the ground. I never even saw the guys who attacked me."

Isbister, who lost her purse but, ironically, not her phone during the assault, tells a tale that is, apparently, all too typical. According to Lt. Eric DiMichele, an NYPD spokesman, most people who are attacked while using mobile phones are simply caught off-guard by the perpetrator.

"Even though the city is the safest it's been in decades," warns DiMichele, "people still have to use their common sense while walking down the street." For years the police have warned would-be victims to walk with a purposeful stride, keep a watchful eye on the environment, and avoid poorly lit corridors. Today that list of dos and don'ts has been updated to proscribe the use of personal stereos and mobile phones on city streets. "Anything that takes the citizen's attention away from the immediate vicinity," explains DiMichele, "is a potential threat to personal safety."

According to an informal poll of metropolitan police agencies around the country, a person using a portable phone is now four times more likely to be assaulted than a non-phoner. Statistics also suggest that an attack against a mobile phone user is as likely to take place during the day as at night.

Public safety officials are hoping to increase public awareness of the dangers associated with pedestrian use of mobile phones by enlisting the aid of the wireless industry. Nokia, Motorola, and Ericsson have all agreed to include special instructions on personal safety in their product manuals.

The campaign for mobile phone safety, however, finds itself against some ardent critics: the victims of cell-phone-related crime themselves. Last March, Steve Ballmer, the president of Microsoft, was assaulted in Boston while making a call to his wife, who was in Washington state at the time. It was Mrs. Ballmer who called the police.

Ballmer maintains that his use of a mobile phone did not lead to the robbery. "I was walking out of an expensive restaurant," argues Ballmer, who lost his wallet and gained a bump on the head in the transaction, "so naturally I was a good mark. But if I hadn't had my phone, there's no way my wife could have called the police instantly -- it might have saved me."

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments?

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