SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) — More Bay Area thieves are targeting smartphones, with some bold enough to snatch the gadgets out of people’s hands. Two of those thieves even told CBS 5 how they pick their targets.

Dozens of smartphone robberies are reported every week in the Bay Area. It can happen during the day, even in crowded public places, as Ashley Sedillo can testify.

She was sitting at a bus stop in downtown San Francisco, texting her mom on her iPhone. Sedillo recalled suddenly, “I felt someone from behind me put their hand over my hands. I kind of thought it was someone kind of playing a prank on me. And then I realized with how forceful they were, when they whipped me around, that it was not a joke.”

Instinctively Sedillo tried to hold on to her phone. That’s when one of the suspects attacked her. “He closed fist punched me twice,” she said. The attack left her badly bruised and shaken.

Cellphone robberies, especially for Apple iPhones, are on the rise all over the Bay Area. CBS 5 compiled data from police reports and found close to 400 incidents in the past 6 months in San Francisco alone.

Many of the holdups involved violence. People punched, pistol whipped, held up with an ice scraper, even a gun. And that’s just “reported” robberies; many victims don’t even come forward.

Two admitted thieves wore masks to tell CBS 5 WHY. “People are afraid,” they said. The thieves said they pick targets who won’t call the police. “If you find someone that looks like they could either afford a new one or were smart enough to get the insurance plan, it’s not worth the trouble to them.”

The thieves it takes just minutes to wipe a stolen phone clean. “You just pull out the cord in your phone, plug it into your computer, download jailbreaking software. It just wipes everything clean, passwords and everything.”

Then the thieves can sell it. “You can get $300 to $400 for it, just hand to hand transaction,” they said.

So where are they selling the phones? A CBS 5 investigation reveals that in San Francisco stolen electronics almost always end up at the corner of 7th and Market Streets. That’s where cellphone thieves from all over the city come to sell their stolen wares. “It’s like an iphone Walmart over there,” the two admitted thieves said.

CBS 5 went undercover to find out. When approached, some buyers seemed very open about it, admitting they buy stolen phones. They’ll pay $50 to $75 for older models, and hundreds of dollars for newer models. Most of the stolen phones that are fenced at 7th and Market end up in Mexico and China.

So how could such a brazen fencing operation be allowed to continue, right out in public? CBS 5 took the question to Joe Garrity, Captain of the Tenderloin police station, blocks away from 7th and Market.

“I think we have not dropped the ball on electronic devices,” Garrity told CBS 5. He said SFPD conducts regular undercover stings, but building cases takes time.

We got a taste of what the police are up against on a ride with Sgt. Mark Obrochta. Approaching 7th and Market streets, he explained why it’s such a difficult corner to police. There is plenty of traffic and pedestrians, and a very organized gang of criminals who do their own surveillance on the cops.

As we went by the corner we saw an attempted transaction: A woman giving a phone to a man in a green shirt. “The female may be selling it,” Obrochta said.

But the man in the green shirt apparently wasn’t interested. “Maybe she was asking too much,” Obrochta said.

According to Oborchta, that is a typical pattern. But catching the suspects in the act is another story. Sure enough, within minutes we were spotted, and the suspects all cleared out.

Obrochta is keeping up the fight, but said in the meantime cellphone owners have to do their share: “Don’t use them unless you have to,” he said.

Victims like Ashley Sedillo couldn’t agree more. “Keep them put away. You don’t want people to know you have it.”

Sedillo had a “find my phone” app but it didn’t help. If the phone is turned off by thieves, those apps may not work.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

Comments (6)
  1. proud_bay_man says:

    Sash, are you one of them. maybe? Me thinks so. lead us in the right direction. Your direction.

  2. John says:

    That’s why I always carry a shank with me.

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