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The Life of a Stolen Phone: For the Smartphone Industry, Theft Is a Part of the Business Model 

Wednesday, Apr 23 2014
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The only solution, Leno and Gascón argue, is to have kill-switches hardwired so that no network can reactivate a stolen device — no matter where it goes, it's useless. "Until then, my elected colleagues and I should put our trust in the police officers who fight this crime every day over the industry that continually resists a comprehensive solution to it," Leno retorted, chastening the CTIA in his own public statement.

He finds the industry's resistance baffling.

Alex felt a surge of adrenaline as he and Victor du Long stared each other down, in a doorway in Clayton.

"I said to myself — 'Oh, you fucker, I've got you,'" Alex remembers, three years later. He thought he'd uncovered a rogue BART employee; he wouldn't know, until filing a complaint and recounting the incident to BART's customer service department, that Du Long was, in fact, a cop.

And, not surprisingly, du Long was reluctant to admit guilt. "Well, how do I know it's your phone?" he mumbled.

"Because I'm standing on your doorstep," Alex snapped. "It's locked — I have the password. Give it to me."

When du Long finally handed the phone over, Alex grabbed it and typed the password in. The phone lit up obligingly. "Okay, thank you!" Alex cried, running down the steps and back to his car.

Weeks later, he found himself in BART's Internal Affairs office in Oakland, trying to explain the Find My iPhone app to a group of investigators.

"They videotaped me turning my phone off, sending a text, and then receiving the location of the text," Alex recalls, noting that the BART cops were fascinated; "Find My iPhone" hadn't received that much buzz outside Apple fan-club circles, and most non-techies still didn't know it existed. Alex gave the cops permission to subpoena his phone records from Apple. Then he went home and heard nothing for several months.

In April 2012, BART Police Internal Affairs sent Alex a letter announcing that the investigation had been completed, and that du Long had been charged with "conduct unbecoming an officer," unauthorized property removal, and untruthfulness. The department couldn't disclose further details, owing to the Peace Officer Bill of Rights Act, but BART Lt. Lance Haight assured Alex that it had been "addressed appropriately."

Alex is an outlier. The vast majority of smartphone theft victims never find their stolen property.

And the robberies continue. An April consumer report showed that smartphone theft skyrocketed nationally, from 1.6 million cases in 2012 to 3.1 million in 2013 — a 94 percent uptick, which left Gascón and Leno feeling vindicated. In San Francisco, the epidemic keeps growing: Ten smartphones were swiped from patrons at Balancoire, a Mission district nightclub, on a recent Saturday. The thieves were caught on surveillance camera but never apprehended. By Tuesday, at least one of the robbery victims had bought a new phone and moved on.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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