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About The Bay: San Francisco DA’s Plan To End Rampant Cellphone Thefts

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SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS) – Have a cellphone? You’re a target for thieves in San Francisco.

Last year, 1,500 cellphones were reported stolen in San Francisco.

“Better than 50% of our robberies involve cellphones,” said Police Chief Greg Suhr.

The trend is hardly unique to San Francisco. Millions of phones are stolen worldwide each year. What may be unique – or at least unusual – is San Francisco’s proposal to deal with the problem. District Attorney George Gascon has launched a campaign to make stolen cellphones ineffective.

“The value of the phone can be completely eliminated if you put a kill switch on it, so that as the phone gets reported stolen the phone will no longer be operable,” he suggested.

If a stolen cellphone doesn’t work, thieves would have a much harder time making a buck at a pawn shop, which is where many cellphones end up.

“People come in every day with iPhones, the 4, the 5, with pictures of people that are obviously not them on there, they don’t even try (to remove them) most of the time,” said a man who runs a shop selling used electronics – one that authorities say is perfectly legal – in San Francisco’s Mission District.

“We have a good number of people who started using our company for normal income,” said the man, who didn’t want to provide his name. “They got pretty savvy about what phones they could steal.

At any given time, he said, there are dozens of phones for sale in his shop.

“People will be like I’m getting a new one when it’s a phone that was released two days ago. They come in, they have no idea how to use the phone and they say they got it from their girlfriend, or something like that,” the shopowner said.

Chances are, it’s stolen – and was probably swiped in an instant.

“It all happened so fast and I was just like what happened? I was really sad afterwards,” a woman named Kate described her experience.

She was texting and didn’t notice somebody was following from behind, reaching over her shoulder to grab her phone.

“My phone was in my pocket and I went to tie my shoe and I felt somebody grab my sweater and I just thought it was some rude person. But it turns out that they took my phone,” Anna recounted what happened to her on a BART platform. “It was in my pocket, I didn’t think you know, I know not to have it out and flash it around.”

“What I would suggest for everybody is to put passwords on your phone because that way they can’t do anything, even if it is a SIM card phone. Because nobody wants to buy a locked phone,” suggested the man at the Mission District used electronics store.

Authorities in San Francisco do think the additional step of a “kill switch” is necessary.

“The phone can still be repackaged, right?” pointed out Gascon. “What we’re talking about is creating a situation where the phone will never work again.”

“The value of the phone could be completely eliminated if you put a kill switch on it,” he continued. “So, as soon as the phone gets reported stolen the phone will no longer be operable.

San Francisco would not be the first to employ such a crime-fighting tactic.

“Australia and the United Kingdom, specifically, they call it bricking,” said Suhr.

The term “bricking” refers to the phone’s uselessness; in essence, it’s nothing more than a brick in your hand.

Civil rights advocates are questioning the concept of a kill switch, warning that it has the potential to infringe on a person’s liberties. Wireless carriers have also been wary and thus far generally cool on the idea.

Gascon met last month with wireless service providers and has also spoken to major electronics firms about kill switch technology. But, Gascon has reportedly received a cool reception, all around.

You can hear Mike Sugerman’s About the Bay reports on Mondays at 6:40am, 7:40am and 8:40am on KCBS All News 740AM and 106.9FM.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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