Smartphone thefts give wake-up call 

All over town, folks are tuning out the world and tuning in to their smartphones — playing games, checking email, sending text messages. They’re also making themselves sitting ducks for robbery.

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San Francisco thieves stole 180 cellphones in 30 days this year, according to police Chief Greg Suhr. Plenty of those were snatched right out of people’s hands. In the Tenderloin alone, 38 percent of robberies in January and February — where items were stolen directly from a person — were cellphones, said police Sgt. Michael Andraychak.

Most smartphone robberies are crimes of opportunity, where suspects approach suddenly and either snatch the phone or use force and fear to take it, Andraychak said. In late January alone, suspects pulled off four such robberies in Glen Park, according to police reports.

One woman was holding her phone outside a grocery store when a suspect hit her on the back of the head and ran off with the phone. In another case, an 11-year-old boy was using his phone in the Glen Park Branch Library before a suspect followed him into the bathroom and took it from him.

Despite the risk of robbery, Chester Hartsough said he uses his smartphone frequently when he’s out to send text messages or check bus schedules. “I make sure I’m aware of who’s around me,” he said while using his phone to arrange a coffee date with his wife.

“It wouldn’t bother me to have my phone stolen,” Hartsough said. “It would suck, but I wouldn’t be scared or traumatized by it.”

But many victims of cellphone robberies definitely feel traumatized.

Art gallery employee Megan McConnell was waiting for a downtown bus after an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art when a teenager grabbed her iPhone and ran. She chased him, but wasn’t able to keep up.

“I was angry and totally astonished,” McConnell said. “I got home and felt very violated. When I woke up to an email from my bank saying someone had tried to log in to my account, I felt even more violated.”

Smartphone use is unquestionably on the rise. One-third of adults own a smartphone, according to a 2011 Pew Internet & American Life survey. With that ownership comes increased use, which becomes habit-forming. A 2011 study from the Personal and Ubiquitous Computing journal found that smartphone owners briefly check their phones many times a day, particularly when they’re bored or waiting for something, like a bus.

“I think it’s individual addiction, but also a socially constructed problem,” said Leslie Perlow, author of “Sleeping With Your Smartphone,” due out in May. “When the phone beeps, you want to see what it is. There’s also a sense of feeling important, of being needed.”

Perlow asked 1,600 managers and professionals how they would feel if they lost their phones, and 44 percent said they would experience a “great deal” of anxiety.

To keep people from losing their phones, police recommend that people pay more attention to their surroundings, not use smartphones and other electronics as they walk or use transit, and not use the tell-tale white earphones that come with Apple devices, Andraychak said.

Not everyone heeds that advice. Christina Yu, sitting at a bus stop while wearing white earphones and texting on her phone, didn’t notice a reporter standing inches away from her.

“Yes, smartphone thefts do worry me,” Yu said. “I always make sure to keep my phone in a zippered part of my purse.” But she doesn’t take any precautions when using the phone publicly. “No, I just have it out,” she shrugged.

Tracking software  can foil criminals

When a teen stun-gunned a woman in Japantown and stole her belongings, including her smartphone, the device’s GPS technology led police right to the suspect.

San Francisco police frequently attempt to track down stolen phones and other electronics. However, a number of things have to happen before that works — including installing the right software and obtaining cooperation from cellphone makers and service providers.

Liana Lareau had her iPhone snatched from her hands while she was waiting in line at El Farolito on Mission Street. But police couldn’t get it back for her.

“Sadly, I hadn’t activated the ‘Find my iPhone’ feature,” she said. “The police took the serial number, but I didn’t try very hard to follow up on it.”

Phone-tracking software is optional and must be installed by the user before police can take advantage of it in robbery situations. Such programs also let people remotely lock or erase lost or stolen devices, which can keep sensitive data out of robbers’ hands if tracking doesn’t work, according to Jen Martin, an Apple spokeswoman.

“Some phones can be located using GPS technology,” said Dan Newman, a spokesman for AT&T, which offers a secure website where a subscriber can trace a phone’s location on a map.

In addition, if the thief — or the company — turns off the phone, its tracking signals will go silent, foiling police efforts.

“Installing tracking software can be a useful way of following a stolen phone or laptop after the fact,” said police Sgt. Michael Andraychak. “However, our crime-prevention strategy has been one of education, and preventing thefts and robberies to begin with.” 

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Beth Winegarner

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