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Thieves Target Smartphone Users On San Francisco Muni Buses

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SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) — The San Francisco Police Department is urging Muni riders to be aware of their surroundings as thieves target their smartphones.

Security cameras recently captured thieves targeting a woman on a Muni bus. The first thief moves into position across from the back door. As the bus driver pulls in for a stop in the Bayview District, a second thief gets up to hold the door open. A third thief also joins in.

Just as the bus door opens, the third thief jumped up and grabbed the woman’s iPhone. She holds on and is dragged to the floor. By the time she gets up, the robbers are gone. It took only a few seconds.

Bus riders are a prime target for smartphone and iPod thieves. Victims are distracted, usually texting or listening to music. Women, seniors and the disabled are especially vulnerable.

“I could only see part of his hand,” said Merlin New, who is legally blind. He was waiting at a bus stop with an iPod strapped to his left arm when a robber came up from behind.

“He reached for the iPod and ripped if off my arm. I tried to reach over and get him, but at that point he started hitting me,” New said. “He hit me in the face four or five times and knocked me to the ground.”

KCBS’ Margie Shafer Reports:

Seven months later, New is still recovering from the attack. “My ribs were broken, my jaw was fractured, my neck was injured,” he said.

Data compiled by CBS 5 revealed most of the 400 reported smartphone and iPod robberies in San Francisco in the last six months of 2011 involved violence.

A recent CBS 5 investigation revealed the thefts are fueled by a thriving black market for stolen phones on the street.

“The money is just walking right in front of them,” District Attorney George Gascon said.

Gascon prosecuted New’s attacker and watched our report.

“It’s very hard to enforce this because they move around. You set up a sting operation, you make an arrest today and then somebody else comes in and takes their place,” Gascon said.

The District Attorney believes it’s time for the wireless industry to step in.

“I believe you reported on this before. A lot of this could be mitigated if the carriers came up with a very simple technical solution.” he said.

Gascon is talking about a blocking system used in Australia that CBS 5 reported on last month.

“That’s a blocking system using a 15 digit IMEI number that is attached to every mobile device…someone who steals a phone that phone is blocked across all three networks in this country and is essentially rendered useless,” said Chris Althaus, CEO of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association.

Australia’s program has cut down thefts by 25 percent.

But John Null, a spokesperson for CTIA, which represents U.S. wireless providers said, “We don’t believe it’s feasible.”

Gascon disagrees. “I believe that the carriers and manufacturers have a responsibility here and I believe that they are not doing what they should do, because they are motivated by profit,” he said.

Despite his injuries and the loss of his IPod, New said he has no hard feelings. “A person who wants to steal an IPod, there’s another need there … had he asked me, I would have given it to him,” he said.

The man who stole from Mervin New is behind bars. His sentencing is set for next month. The thieves shown in the Muni security video were also prosecuted.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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