Report offers inside look at undercover police operation to disrupt stolen iPhone trade

handcuffs stolen iphone

Earlier this year, it was reported that mobile phone thefts had climbed to 300 per day in London, with the iPhone accounting for over half of them. And we’ve heard similar numbers here Stateside, in major cities like New York and Chicago.

But police forces are beginning to fight back, setting up undercover units to try and disrupt the stolen smartphone trade. And a new report out this weekend offers an inside look at such an operation by the San Francisco Police Department…

As part of its “iTheft” series, The Huffington Post (via The Loop) published a new feature on Friday that offers up an inside look at how the San Francisco Police Department is working to dismantle a local ring of stolen iPhone sellers.

“The man in the hoodie is indeed a policeman: Officer Tom Lee is playing the role of decoy in a sting operation targeting buyers of stolen iPhones. Beneath his sweatshirt, he wears a small recording device taped to his chest. Lee approaches a heavy-set man standing outside the red awning of a Carl’s Jr. burger restaurant. The man wears glasses and a black pinstripe suit. He inspects the iPhone and offers $100.

Lee takes the cash, hands over the phone and gives the signal. Four officers swoop in and place the man in handcuffs, notching another arrest in the intensifying cat-and-mouse game playing out here and in other major American cities between law enforcement and criminals looking to profit from the burgeoning trade in stolen mobile devices.”

This operation was just one of many set up by the SFPD, and apparently facilitated by Apple. The report says the Cupertino company, who is headquartered just 40 miles to the north, actually supplies the undercover unit with iPhones to use in stings like this.

It’s odd to think that a police department would devote so much of its time and resources to track down a few iPhone thieves, but as noted above, it’s becoming a significant problem in many cities. San Francisco Police Captain Joe Garrity says it’s easy money.

“Everybody is distracted,” says Garrity, struck by the vulnerability of pedestrians who carelessly hold their gadgets. “Shit, I could grab that phone, take off running and no one would catch me, then run down to Seventh and Market and sell it.”

Of course, Apple itself could do something in future iPhones that would help prevent future thefts: build in that fingerprint scanner that everyone keeps talking about. Imagine not being able to reboot or restore the handset without the owner’s fingerprint.