Go ahead. Steal my phone. I deserve it: iPhone theft in the Bay Area is booming.

By James Robinson , written on November 13, 2013

From The News Desk

I am a sucker.

I live in Lake Merritt, Oakland, and am a model of the prototypical young professional who gave up dreams of a San Francisco address for the promise of barely affordable rent.

While I carry little cash on me, I have a smartphone on me at all times. My iPhone carries no password. My Gmail app remains forever logged in. In my email, there is record of my passport number, my pin code, social security, bank accounts and the two standard passwords I use for pretty much everything.

Which is dumb, especially when in the past week, 25 people have been robbed within a mile of my apartment, many in broad daylight.

You’d imagine I’d compensate with smart behavioral choices, but I don’t. I tweet on trains. I hold Google Maps open in front of me like a helpless tourist when I’m trying to find my way.

People just like me are why "Apple picking" – when smartphones are taken at gunpoint or snatched out of our hands in public, just as we’re distracted in nailing down that perfect Facebook status update on the bus – is a boom industry.

Forever striving to be the nation’s technological leader, the Bay Area leads the way on this new frontier. Over half of all thefts here involve smartphones, a figure that leaves New York, Los Angeles, and pretty much everywhere, in the dust.

Last Thursday, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee launched a MUNI-targeted campaign to influence San Franciscans to change up their smartphone behavior. “Eyes Up, Phones Down,” it implores us. Taken alongside the “Secure our Smartphones” initiative launched in June by the San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and his New York counterpart Eric Schneiderman, it forms the start of a new front of advocacy that could be taken as biting first world satire if we didn’t so desperately need saving from our own smartphone use in the first place.

Through the end of October, there had been more than 9000 robberies and thefts in Oakland in 2013, according to official police statistics. A staggering three-quarters of which are believed to have involved a smartphone.

Historically, San Francisco has trailed behind its bridge neighbor in phone thievery. A San Francisco Chronicle column from December 2011 quaintly bemoaned the theft of 40 smartphones in the previous month. Not one to be easily bested, the city is now doing its best to cut the deficit, recording double-digit annual jumps since, according to the 2012 FBI Uniform Crime Report.

We’re too readily aiding in our own demise. It’s a whole lot of stupid from people who view themselves as some of the smartest on the planet.

The city read on in horror in September following the murder of Justin Valdez, shot in the back on a MUNI train in San Francisco by a man who spent several minutes waving a gun around the crowded train car, unnoticed by fellow riders, all who had their faces down in their phones.

Reporting on the launch of the “Eyes Up, Phones Down” campaign, CBS news ran a compilation of security footage of phone thefts. Each cut featured an enthralled smartphone user, head down, unaware, their phone easily ripped from them.

“I don’t want to be regulated,” one San Franciscan told CBS news disapprovingly at the news last week, iconic white Apple headphones still plugged into his ears.

“I don’t want to be bored,” he moaned further.

Still, we need to get used to the idea of being targets, because stealing our phones is good business.

“I’d place the value of a stolen phone at somewhere around $400,” says Marc Rogers, Principal Security Researcher at Lookout in San Francisco, a mobile security company.

“If it was one of the new gold iPhones, in times of demand like this you’d see a substantially higher retail value on the black market.”

Research published by Lookout put the cost of lost or stolen smartphones to American consumers at $30 billion in 2012. A Consumer Reports survey estimated that 1.6 million Americans had their phones stolen last year.

This fight needs to start with smartphone users, because the power is most squarely in our hands to cut the supply off at the source.

As Rogers outlines, almost 50 percent of smartphones have no security pin, meaning that the phone can be restored back to factory settings with its data wiped and tracking software dismantled within moments of it being taken from you.

Even with a pin number, the phone then only needs to be connected to a computer to be wiped and any security on it dismantled. Smartphones with SIM cards can be quickly reactivated on other networks, while phones tied to fixed contracts have resale value as iPods.

The original thief will likely then sell his cargo onto a fencing operation, serving as a middleman and reselling it, says the San Francisco Police Department’s Albie Esparza.

These illegally acquired smartphones then quickly disperse, sold into pawnshops, hocked in open air gathering spots like the corner of Seventh and Market or Oakland’s Laney Flea Market, put up for sale on Craigslist and eBay, or sent overseas.

Esparza says that most of SFPD’s enforcement, involving plainclothes officers trying to sell stolen phones in high traffic areas, serves as little deterrent. “You arrest one person and then there’s ten more people who come up in that person’s place,” he says

Subsequently, putting up a good defense on an individual level, as Mayor Lee is advocating, is the safest offence.

Because the risks we toy with are real and the odds of meeting that worst-case scenario are getting shorter. The news is increasingly peppered with horror stories.

Like, at the end of September, three men with guns robbed 20 commuters of their electronics in a carpool line in Rockridge, a little before 9 am. Or last April, when a 26-year-old New York man was killed two blocks from his home in the Bronx, when he was shot in the chest after refusing to hand his iPhone over. He was found by paramedics with his white Apple headphones still in place and his wallet was untouched. His killers were later arrested trying to sell his phone Craigslist.

And past mental injury and physical harm, once these phones are gone, they’re gone. Humorous vigilante scenarios are rare, like the woman who shamed the man on Tumblr who stole her smartphone and unwittingly supplied her with duplicates of every photo he took on it, or the San Diego man who had his friend film him tracking down and then beating up his phone thief on a picturesque San Diego beach.

Phone tracking services, like Find My iPhone, until recently could be quickly dismantled.

Apple introduced Activation Lock with its new iOS7 update, a new feature within Find My iPhone that requires a user’s Apple ID and password before it can be turned off and the phone can be wiped.

But as Lookout’s Marc Rogers says, there’s no single silver bullet, no one piece of software that can save us.

“A lot of security measures look good on paper, but when you dive in there are workarounds. If you only create one barrier, criminals will get around it.”

In April 2012, the FCC mandated the creation of a universal blacklist for stolen phones in America, based off a device’s IMEI serial code. All local carriers are supposed to be feeding into this by the end of November.

Which is good domestically, but might only hasten the flow of stolen phones overseas. Following a similar initiative put in place in Europe, stolen phones started showing up in the Belarus, Rogers says.

Disincentives need to be deployed aggressively and in unison.

Almost fifty percent of smartphone users – fools like me – don’t have a password on their phones. Mobile security programs that allow a user to remotely lock, track and wipe their phones need to be harder to override and more universally implemented. Serial number blacklists will make phones more difficult to on sell. More law enforcement – Mayor Lee’s plan included an extra $1 million to beef up MUNI security through March 2014 – will instill lingering doubt among budding thieves.

At the root of the problem though, is that when people like myself make it so easy to steal, thieves will find a way to profit.

Within an hour, I had a passcode on my phone, installed Find My iPhone and protected my information. Individually, they’re easy steps to take.

But more than that, we all need to stop thinking it won’t happen to us.

As SFPD’s Esparza explains, we’re all vulnerable, always. In public he pleads, try to key in to how your public smartphone use cuts you off from those around you. Don’t sit by the doors on the bus or train, lost in a virtual world, for instance.

They call it Apple picking because it is easy. It’s time to start hiding the spoils.