IT PAYS TO KNOW: Extra, Extra! Cellphone Thefts on the Rise

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By JUDD MATSUNAGA, ESQ.

The good news: overall crime in Los Angeles fell for a 10th straight year in 2012. Fueled by drops in many serious crimes including robbery, assault and auto thefts, crime declined by about 2% according to preliminary figures collected by the Los Angeles Police Department. (Source: LAPD website)

The bad news: the 2% overall decline in crime was smaller than in previous years because of small increases in lower-level crimes. Last year, the City of Los Angeles actually recorded increases in petty thefts and thefts from vehicles.

According to an L.A. Times article (Dec. 27, 2012), there were no obvious explanations for the increase in thefts. However, the some crime experts said the statistics suggest the years of economic hardship facing many Angelenos may have finally had an effect on crime.

To me, it’s not so surprising. If a guy can’t get a job, is willing to do “day labor,” but nobody picks him up in front of the Home Depot, it would hardly be surprising if he were to steal some rich person’s cellphone. He’s not a “professional criminal,” he’s just hungry. Chances are, he can get $10 for it.

In fact, police in Los Angeles have noticed an emerging trend in crime — cellphone thefts. Due to their necessity and high dollar value, cell phones are fast becoming a favorite target of thieves. In the L.A. downtown area, thefts of cellphones increased 32% for the first quarter of 2012. (L.A. Times, 11/1/12) .

Many cellphone thefts occur on bus and metro rail lines. One thief recently snatched a smartphone while sitting right behind his unsuspecting victim and darted out the rear of a bus in mere seconds. Another robber grabbed an iPhone from an oblivious bus rider — while she was still talking.

“We think the reason is the iPhone and the similar smart-type phones are becoming more prevalent,” said Lt. Paul Vernon, commanding officer of the Central Detective Division. He explained, “A crook can snatch an iPhone, replace the SIM card with one from a pay-as-you-go phone, and have a brand-new, latest-generation phone for himself.”

In past generations of phones, once stolen, the service could be turned off and the phone, for the most part, was useless. On newer phones, changing the SIM card is like changing the service. And if a pay-as-you-go SIM is put in the phone, there is no record of the user with a service provider.

“The phone companies don’t really care about this flaw because if the phone gets stolen, the victim will buy another phone, and the crook will keep using the one he stole,” Lt. Vernon added.

Thefts of phones from restaurant tables, libraries, and nightclubs are becoming more common as crooks see an unattended smart phone and grab it, then convert it for their use or sell it.

Men and women were equally likely to have their phones taken, according to the most recent crime statistics for downtown. “Smartphones have become a mobile office and even the homeless can have email and access to the Internet for movies and information,” Lt. Vernon said.  “Phones are changing the world and the profile of crime.”

Police recommend the follow to reduce one’s chances of having a cellphone taken:

• Remove all cellphones and electronic items from cars when you exit and lock the car.

• Keep cellphones in pockets, purses or on carriers, rather than setting them down on tables.

• Don’t text and walk or walk and talk. Your attention is away from your surroundings and it makes you an easy mark for a thief.

• Don’t lend your phone for use unless you really know the person and trust they will hand it back.

Now, everyone knows that if you are a victim of a crime when there is a life-or-death emergency that requires the immediate response of emergency service such as police, fire or paramedic, you call 911. But, when there is a situation that requires police response but is not an emergency, use a non-emergency 7-digit telephone number.

According to the LAPD website, it is a misdemeanor under California Penal Code Section 148.3 for any person to willfully use the 911 system for any purpose other than reporting an emergency. “Non-emergency lines are for crimes in progress or other situations that require police response, but that are non-life threatening (i.e. loud parties, neighbor disputes, etc.).”

In my research for this article, I called the “non-emergency 7-digit telephone number” I found on the LAPD website, i.e., the General City Telephone Information at (213) 485-2121. First, I listened to a recorded message from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (first in English, then is Spanish). Then I got another recording: “This line is busy, goodbye.”

My thoughts? Better to not lose your cellphone or become a victim of any other crime. So please take every precaution to avoid being a crime victim and have a very safe and happy new year.

Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in Estate/Medi-Cal Planning, Probate, Personal Injury and Real Estate Law. (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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